/ 21 August 2008

Africans marvel, fret at China’s hard workers

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 labour 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 labour and human rights’ safeguards in its African investment drive.

Keen to address foreign investment sensitivities, African finance ministers and central bankers meeting in Mauritania on August 1 pledged greater transparency in their dealings with China and other new investors pouring money into the continent.

They stressed the importance of developing local skills and industries beyond the extraction of raw materials.

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.

Algerian bricklayer Djamel Laari marvels at China’s growing links to his country, once shunned by foreign investors due to an impenetrable bureaucracy and past political violence.

But he wonders about the Chinese practice of flying planeloads of labourers into a war-weary, politically fragile society where seven out of 10 adults under 30 has no job.

”Many Algerians are not happy with this, because those companies bring Chinese workers with them. This doesn’t help us cope with unemployment,” Laari said.

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’
Two-way trade rose to $3,8-billion in 2007 from less than a billion in 2002, driven by a rise in Chinese exports to Algeria, which has won an estimated $1-billion in Chinese investment.

In neighbouring 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.

Azzeddine Lahlou, who runs a boutique in Casablanca’s Derb Omar district, said: ”Many traders here can no longer afford even to pay for their children’s education.”

”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.”

Many Chinese workers in Africa earn much more than that, often several hundred dollars a month. Those earning less may have support from family members, also working in Africa.

Chinese migration to Africa has surged since 2000, according to a joint study by Barry Sautman, a political scientist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and social scientist Yan Hairong of Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Sautman told Reuters a 2007 Chinese media estimate of 750 000 Chinese expatriates in Africa was ”not unreasonable”, making them one of Africa’s largest foreign communities.

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.

Hu Zhirong, vice-president of the China-Africa Development Fund, a private equity fund, told Reuters in June that Chinese foreign direct investment soared to $13,7-billion in 2007 from $500-million in 2000.

This wide swathe of Chinese activity has helped Africa to its strongest growth since the 1960s. But in sub-Saharan Africa, the advance has not put a dent in unemployment, which remained at about 10% in 2006, according to the United Nations.

The International Labour Organisation says about 55% 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% 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 labourers 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 labour 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.

”The biggest problem we face now is the language barrier and the different customs and culture between Zambians and the Chinese,” Goodwell Kaluba, general secretary of Zambia’s National Union of Mining and Allied Workers, told Reuters.

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.

As a result, most encounters between Africans and Chinese tend to be in the Chinese shops that are springing up around the continent, often in remote areas, to sell basic household goods.

Illegal immigrants
”For most ordinary Africans, it is these Chinese small-scale entrepreneurs, and most especially retail traders, who have had the greatest impact on their lives,” Alden wrote.

While prices are attractive, pleasure can vanish if Africans perceive a rip-off.

”In Namibia, the rather positive image of Chinese shop owners as energetic people who bring affordable foods to the poor has been supplanted by the negative image of greedy business people profiting from selling worthless junk,” wrote Basel University academic Gregor Dobler in a study of Chinese in northern Namibia.

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 socialising, despite the lack of full comprehension of each others’ languages,” he said. – Reuters