The following arrived by email from Barry Lally with the question, 'Sound familiar?'
The dark underside of Chinese building boom
Windhoek — From Tuesday's Globe and Mail, Wednesday, Jun. 24, 2009
There might be a global recession, but you wouldn't know it from a visit to Namibia's booming capital.
This former German colonial city in southwestern Africa, with its tidy streets and Bavarian architecture, is alive with construction activity. Cranes are towering over the city centre, many flying the distinctive red banner of China.
But Globe and Mail interviews in Namibia reveal a dark underside to the building boom: illegal labour practices by state-owned Chinese companies that dodge safety rules and pay their construction workers far below the minimum wage.
These labour violations have become widespread at Chinese companies across Africa, giving them an unfair advantage and allowing them to push their local competitors out of business, a new study says.
The study, funded by trade unions, alleges that the Chinese investment boom in Africa is fuelled by the exploitation of African workers. While many African leaders have welcomed the Chinese business invasion, the study documents a pattern of labour abuses across the continent, suggesting that Chinese investors are achieving their commercial successes on the back of cheap wages and violations of labour laws.
In Namibia, for example, the study found that every Chinese construction company was paying far less than minimum wage. In Malawi and Ghana, many employees of Chinese companies are required to work up to 12 hours without a break, sometimes for seven days a week. In Nigeria and Kenya, workers at some Chinese factories are locked inside their factories all day to prevent them from leaving, resulting in dozens of deaths when fires broke out.
“Chinese companies are particularly notorious in terms of the impunity with which they flout national labour laws, including health and safety standards,” the study said. “In some cases these companies receive the support of government agencies to violate labour regulations.”
Workers in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, confirmed that they face the threat of losing their jobs if they object to the Chinese violations of labour laws. “If we complain, they fire us,” one Namibian worker said in a Globe interview at a construction site where a Chinese company is building the Works and Transport Ministry headquarters.
The worker said the Chinese company is paying him the equivalent of 63 cents an hour. The minimum wage for entry-level construction workers in Namibia is about $1.27 an hour.
A visit to several Chinese construction sites in Windhoek found that many of the construction workers were not wearing safety helmets. Some said their Chinese employers required them to pay for their own safety equipment. They were charged more than $4 for a helmet, $1.40 for gloves and more than $11 for overalls – substantial sums of money in an African country. “It's not a nice place,” said another worker at the ministry construction site, who said he was trying to find a new job.
The 420-page study by the African Labour Research Network, based on two years of research, focuses on Chinese employers in 10 African countries, where Chinese trade and investment has soared dramatically in recent years. China is now Africa's biggest trading partner, and hundreds of Chinese companies have set up a major presence.
In the vast majority of cases, the study found, Chinese companies refuse to sign employment contracts with their workers, treating them as “casual workers” to deprive them of their legally required benefits. This led to routine 12-hour days, forced overtime without extra pay, the firing of female workers who became pregnant and other abuses.
“Workers knew that a refusal to work such long hours would lead to automatic dismissal,” the report said.
“In blatant violation of local labour laws, most Chinese companies denied African workers annual leave, sick leave, maternity leave and compassionate leave. … In Angola, many female workers at Chinese companies were unaware of their right to paid maternity leave and as a result worked until they gave birth and returned to work shortly afterwards.”
The “locking-in” of workers at Chinese factories was a “particularly grave” violation of their rights, the report said. At a Chinese factory in Malawi, the researchers had to talk to workers through a window because they were locked inside during their lunch break.
Violations of health and safety rules were equally serious. In Malawi, workers at a Chinese construction company had to mix cement with their bare hands. “Only very few Chinese employers provided their staff with protective clothing and equipment,” the study said.
“The toilets at most Chinese companies were found to be in a deplorable state and posed severe health risks for workers. In some cases, toilets were also used as change rooms and even ‘canteens' where workers ate from.”
Herbert Jauch, a researcher at the Labour Resource and Research Institute in Namibia and one of the authors of the study, said the Chinese companies were among the worst employers in almost every African country that the study looked at. “African workers are going back to the same horrific working conditions that their fathers suffered under colonial rule,” he said.
“Our message to China is, ‘Your rhetoric about a new partnership with Africa, not a new colonial master relationship, has to be matched by better labour standards.'“ African companies are finding it “virtually impossible” to compete with the Chinese companies, he said. “It's getting more and more difficult to survive. We've already seen some companies disappearing. They've set the spiral in motion, and it's becoming a dog-eat-dog industry.”