Africans Marvel, Fret at China’s Hard Workers

William Maclean, Reuters, August 20, 2008

An influx of workers from China is receiving a mixed reception in Africa, where people both admire and resent the hard-working newcomers’ pursuit of wealth.

Awe at the efficiency with which Chinese build roads, run shops and manage factories is matched by unease at a growing Chinese presence in Africa’s fragile labor markets.

Delight at cheap shirts, toys and shoes sits aside concern at the undercutting of local retailers, Africans told Reuters correspondents around the continent.

The ambivalent response poses a potential risk to China’s push to win hearts and minds in Africa, a priority for Beijing amid Western accusations that it is cutting corners on labor and human rights’ safeguards in its African investment drive.

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However, most African leaders show no reservations in welcoming the billions of dollars spent by China to gain African oil and minerals for its growing economy.

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Algerian officials say the country had 19,000 Chinese workers in 2007, mostly builders and craftsmen implementing parts of a $200 billion national economic development plan. Some Algerians believe the real number is several times that.

“YOU MIGHT AS WELL COMMIT SUICIDE”

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In neighboring Morocco, respect among retailers for Chinese mercantile determination is tainted with dismay over a slump in profit margins due to Chinese price competition, and over the willingness of Chinese to work for low pay.

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“A Chinese worker gets about 300 dirhams ($41) a month. A Moroccan wants around 2,000 dirhams. For 300 dirhams, you might as well commit suicide,” [said Azzeddine Lahlou, who runs a boutique in Casablanca’s Derb Omar district].

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The array of Chinese skills in Africa grows by the month: from doctors and fish farmers to barbers and beauticians. In Gabon, Chinese hairstylists attract a demanding clientele.

More than 800 Chinese state-owned firms are active in the African economy, plus an unknown number of private concerns.

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The International labor Organization says about 55 percent of working people in sub-Saharan Africa do not earn enough to lift themselves and their families above the dollar-a-day poverty line, and that about 86 per cent subsist on $2 a day.

This abiding poverty means Africa’s workplace can be highly sensitive territory for all foreign investors.

In April, China withdrew more than 400 of its workers from Equatorial Guinea after two Chinese laborers were killed in a clash with security forces during a strike by local employees.

While details were sketchy, it was believed to be the first case of Chinese workers being killed in a labor protest in Africa, and appeared to be one of the most serious disputes to affect a Chinese project in the world’s poorest continent.

Some Chinese have become targets for crime or rebels. Separatist Ogaden rebels killed nine Chinese in a raid on an Ethiopian oilfield last year and Chinese employees have been taken hostage in other incidents in Nigeria and Niger.

LOW WAGES, LONG HOURS

In March, workers at Zambia’s Chinese-owned Chambishi smelter went on strike and rioted over pay, slightly injuring a Chinese manager and damaging property.

In South Africa, textile sector job losses in recent years created concern about South African imports of cheap Chinese textiles that “spanned the usually fractious ties between the country’s trade unions, businessmen and government officials,” wrote Chris Alden, London School of Economics lecturer.

Africans cite low wages, long hours and language and culture barriers as problems in working for the Chinese, Alden wrote.

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One way of circumventing such problems has been simply to minimise African employment in Chinese ventures.

In Sudan, increasingly wealthy thanks to growing exports of oil to China, thousands of Chinese are working on major projects in energy, roads, dams and telecoms.

They tend to live apart from Sudanese, with their own accommodation, restaurants and shops in a practice often adopted by large Chinese companies elsewhere in Africa.

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ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS

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An unknown proportion of Chinese workers flout African law by staying on after their contracts expire in order to seek their fortune in Africa, Africans and experts say.

There are also other illegal immigrants, most of whom come on tourist visas with the intention of scouting out opportunities, and then stay when they find them. South Africa appears to be the only country where there are a significant number of Chinese actually smuggled in, Sautman says.

He expects more workplace integration as African managers are appointed in Chinese firms. African-Chinese marriages have taken place, but reliable statistics are hard to find.

“There are some examples of Chinese bosses of small and medium enterprises having good relations with their employees, but more of Chinese and African workers socializing, despite the lack of full comprehension of each others’ languages,” he said.

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