In recent years, as globalisation has taken hold, Chinese companies have come to play a key role as they seek new markets and opportunities around the world. A number of African countries have come to be such key markets: in 2022, statistics suggest, there are about 10 000 Chinese companies operating across the continent. But this surge of Chinese industry has had an incredibly polarising effect on Africa, economically and socially.
Although Chinese companies invested a total of $2.96 billion in 2021 in African industrial and infrastructure projects, a 9.6% increase from 2020, critics often argue that Chinese companies prefer to hire Chinese workers. They are accused of depriving African people job opportunities in their own countries, of violating labour laws and of unfairly treating those they do employ. If this is the case, who should be held responsible: Chinese industry or African countries?
Though the focus on China’s role in Africa has only really sharpened in recent years, its interest in the continent goes back to the Bandung Conference in 1955. The conference was hosted by Indonesia and attended by leaders of newly independent Asian and African nations who hoped for greater collaboration between their countries and decreased dependence on Europe and North America. At the close of the conference, attendees agreed to the promotion of economic and cultural cooperation, the protection of human rights and peaceful coexistence.Notions of anti-colonial rhetoric, Third Worldism and freedom of self-determination were the basis of the Conference. An agreement for the promotion of economic and cultural cooperation, the protection of human rights and a peaceful coexistence signalled the close of the Conference. Decades later, and with the “spirit of Bandung” abandoned, Africa/Asia ties remain.
With the recent and swift rise in investment, there’s been widespread study and reporting. Much of it focuses on economic and developmental issues, and the behaviour of Chinese companies. Chinese labour practices are often viewed as unfair, with various instances of reported harsh and poor working conditions. In Juan Pablo and Heriberto Araujo’s book Silent Army, the pair describe Chinese companies’ hostile attitudes towards trade unions, outline examples of human rights violations and discuss several instances of discrimination aimed at African employees.
For instance, in a video that went viral, Chinese national Liu Jiaqi was deported from Kenya for using racial slurs against his Kenyan colleagues. A video from Uganda showed an illegal Chinese miner assaulting a Ugandan government official.
These and less extreme examples show how Chinese companies test labour laws in various African countries. At home, the Chinese government has followed an industrialisation programme built on the values of heavy industrialisation, low labour costs, capital-intensive manufacturing industries and export-led growth. This development trajectory has seen it grow in leaps and bounds economically but has come at a steep cost to workers’ welfare and wages. Worker safety is not a priority, and the Chinese government has cracked down hard on organised labour: independent unions are illegal and workers do not have the right to strike. All of these approaches are playing out in Chinese companies’ work in African countries.
This results in a double-edged sword for African nations: yes, capital is flowing, but at what cost?
Former Zambian leader Michael Sata, a strong voice against Chinese labour practices, denounced China’s role in Africa and vowed that Zambia would not be a “dumping ground for their human beings”. In Nigeria, attitudes are no different. A Nigerian doctor reportedly spoke of treating a Nigerian labourer’s wounds, incurred at the hands of a Chinese employer. The worker was beaten with an aluminum rod. Just days later news broke of Chinese employers firing live ammunition at protesting workers at Collum coal mine in southern Sinazongwe province, Zambia. Eleven workers were admitted to hospital, sparking outrage on the African continent.
One of the problems is people’s sheer desperation to earn money in countries whose governments offer little support. Nigerian construction workers make $137 a month; some other casual workers make as little as $3 a day. But people need jobs – and cheap wages are seen as better than nothing. The attitude Chinese companies take towards Africa whispers sentiments of exploitation; key concerns are being overlooked on a continent that's already struggling to get on its feet.
Chinese industry has found a goldmine in Africa. The majority of the continent is unable to repel Chinese infractions (they need the capital) but also does not implement labour laws to protect local workers. As is the case in China, the flow of capital comes at great cost to workers. Considering China has lax labour laws, it is not a complete shock that its native business model would reflect in Africa. Outrage and critique are not enough to dispel cases of unfair and unjust treatment at the hands of Chinese industry, the government of Africa's nations needs to do better.It is time for African governments to better balance their countries’ need for capital with their citizens’ basic rights.