China has become a leading driver of growth across sub-Saharan Africa, and along with that growth is growing criticism about Chinese labor practices.
China overtook the U.S. in 2009 as the largest trading partner in the region, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported this year.
Natural resources, but mainly crude oil and petroleum products, represent the bulk of U.S. and Chinese imports.
China heavily invests in African infrastructure projects.
“Chinese infrastructural development is more attuned to African conditions, unlike Western ones,” said Padraig Carmody of Trinity College, Dublin, in a scholarly paper.
Zambia has copper. A long-time friend of the People’s Republic of China, it is second only to South Africa as “the location of China’s most extensive investment beachhead in Africa,” according to Harvard Prof. Robert I. Rotberg.
Ian Taylor, a professor at St. Andrews University in Scotland, is an expert on Chinese engagements in Africa. Zambia and China are “natural partners,” Taylor told AFKInsider.
As long as Zambia is “desperate for investment and its economy depends on natural resources, which China is interested in, Sino-Zambian relations look very promising and likely to improve,” Taylor said.
The increasing presence of Chinese citizens and companies in Zambia, in particular the Chinese state-owned Nonferrous Metal Mining (Group) Co., Ltd. at Chambishi Copper Mine, became an issue during the Zambian presidential elections of September 2011.
Then-opposition leader Michael Sata – today president – heavily criticized the Chinese for labor conditions where they did business in Zambia.
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Poor health and safety conditions, long shifts (12-to-18 hours), and anti-union activities are among the labor abuses reported in Chinese state-owned copper mining companies in Zambia, according to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report.
A union representative at Sino Metals reported that “the Chinese don’t understand the concept of a union. They intimidate those that lead or are part of a union. If they know you’re a representative, you’ll encounter problems. They’ll try to frustrate you until you leave the job.”
Stephen Chan in his 2013 book, “The Morality of China in Africa,” wrote that the Chinese managers drew “from practice in China itself,” and imagined that “pirate operating procedures would suffice in a barbaric African country.”
But in many ways, “Zambia is the most labor-legislated country in Africa,” Chan argued.
For example, “its record of signing up to international labor organization conventions is remarkable.”
Aside from the large Chinese companies doing business in Africa, research has been directed toward the operation of small private entities such as family businesses, individual traders or micro companies.
It is estimated that one million Chinese citizens work and live in African countries today with about 100,000 in Zambia (population 13 million-plus,) according to the 2010 Census of Population and Housing.
A frequent criticism of the Chinese presence in Africa is that it tends not to integrate into local societies.
Agnes Ngoma Leslie confirms this view. She’s a University of Florida senior lecturer and outreach director at the Center for African Studies.
“The majority of Chinese investors and workers keep to themselves,” Leslie said.
Her field research shows that “there are many Chinese citizens who declared that they want to make Zambia their home, have children and raise them in Zambia, but they have not integrated with the local population. Maybe their children will.”
Not all China-Africa experts agree. Dr. Hu Mei, is a researcher at the Institute of African Studies of Zheijiang Normal University, Jinhua, China.
The situation has changed greatly in recent years, Mei said. When she visited Chinese entrepreneurs during field research in May-June 2013, she saw more conscious planning among them, she said.
“The small Chinese investors are more and more clear about their identity as foreigners and their position in Africa, so they pay more close attention to the local law,” she said. “They consider that their career in Africa is not one stop in their life any more, but for good.”
Career or business opportunities can be lost if entrepreneurs do not prepare for the “African venture” properly, Taylor said.
“The language barrier might serve as an obstacle to greater integration,” he said, but he does not think that “the Chinese are any less willing or able to integrate with local communities than others.
“In all the Chinese shops I’ve been to in Africa, there are always local Africans employed,” Taylor said.
But the issue of integration remains problematic, Taylor added. The Chinese “are there to make money, not socialize.”
Younger Chinese investors seem to be more flexible and willing to abide by the local laws.
“The older, newly arrived Chinese tended to be more rigid and to violate labor rights more than the younger investors,” Leslie said. “They also saw themselves working for a shorter period of time and returning home.”
Leslie’s research confirms a new type of migration from China to Zambia. She said younger Chinese sometimes come to Zambia and work for a company, then go back to China and later return to Africa “to start their own companies with credit from their government.”