Conclusion - Not a breed apart

Although these working conditions show that working conditions at Chinese-owned enterprises are often poor, it is not always clear that Chinese firms are much different from those owned by other nationalities.

Claude Kabemba's picture

Director of the Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW)

October 10th, 2012

Although these working conditions show that working conditions at Chinese-owned enterprises are often poor, it is not always clear that Chinese firms are much different from those owned by other nationalities.

Thus, in Zimbabwe, a Chinese take-over of a plant does not seem to have prompted a change in human resource policy. While it is not clear whether Chinese-owned mining companies look after the families of workers affected by AIDS, through benefits or preferential employment of the offspring of affected families, a study noted that this observation is not unique to companies with Chinese involvement. In Mozambique, high levels of unemployment force many workers to accept poor working conditions. However a study suggests this is not specific to Chinese companies, but is common among other foreign and national firms.

There may well be cases in which conditions at Chinese companies are poorer than those in other plants. But, in the main, the evidence suggests that they are no worse employers than others, and that there is little data to suggest that China’s arrival has meaningfully skewed existing labour relations and human resources policies.

Nothing Special?

The evidence presented here clearly suggests that some of the concerns which are expressed about Chinese enterprises’ labour practices in Africa and their attitudes to CSR are legitimate. Working conditions are sometimes harsh and the problem of inadequate technology transfer seems to be common to virtually all Chinese enterprises on the continent. Some firms do not do all they could to contribute to their communities. Whether Chinese firms are any worse than those owned by nationals, and other investors is far less clear – there are certainly examples reported here which suggest this, but there are also cases in which they appear better than non-Chinese companies.

What is clear is that there is no evidence to support the assumption, often made in debates on Chinese investment, that Chinese labour and CSR practices pose a uniform and unique threat to working conditions in Africa. Some Chinese employers appear to have adopted humane labour practices. Where practices are harsh, the problem is often not restricted to Chinese firms. Some give significantly to social projects. Chinese social and labour practices are not uniform and so the issue is not how African governments should respond to all Chinese companies. Only particular companies’ labour and CSR practices are a problem, and in some of those cases the firm responsible is Chinese-owned. Even the fairly general technology transfer problem may not be unique to Chinese companies since the research did not look at how much transfer occurs in other foreign-owned companies. Nor can it be said that the authorities in Southern African countries uniformly avoid applying labour rules and laws for fear of deterring Chinese investments – in some of the countries, authorities have insisted on applying the law, to the extent of closing firms down for periods when they fail to comply with laws.

This surely means that no approach which singles out Chinese firms as a special problem needing a special solution is necessary – the problems identified here would best be addressed by a general improvement in the way in which labour laws are framed and implemented in Southern African countries. The research seems to indicate a frequent need to apply existing laws more vigorously, and in some cases a need to adopt new laws or change current ones to prevent abuses. Where trade unions are active, conditions appear to improve as a result of their efforts, and so it may be necessary for countries where unions do not play a strong role to look at labour law to examine whether it could be more favourable to workers’ right to organise. Our research teams argue also for policy and law requiring CSR, even if the details of what spending priorities should be are left to the companies. But what is clearly needed is a generalised improvement which would apply to all enterprises, not only those from China. The problem is inadequate worker protection and the lack of a CSR framework, not Chinese investment.

About the author(s)

Claude Kabemba is the Director of the Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW). In 2006, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) asked him to spearhead the formation of SARW. He holds a PhD in International Relations (Political economy) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Thesis: Democratisation and the Political Economy of a Dysfunctional State: The Case of the Democratic Republic of Congo). Before joining SARW, he worked at the Human Sciences Research Council and the Electoral institute of Southern Africa as a Chief Research Manager and Research Manager respectively. He has also worked at the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the Centre for Policy Studies as Policy Analyst. Dr. Kabemba’s main areas of research interest include: Political economy of Sub Saharan Africa with focus on Southern and Central Africa looking specifically on issues of democratization and governance, natural resources governance, election politics, citizen participation, conflicts, media, political parties, civil society and social policies. He has consulted for international organizations such Oxfam, UNHCR, The Norwegian People’s Aid, Electoral Commissions and the African Union. He has undertaken various evaluations related to the work of Electoral Commissions and civil society groups interventions in the electoral process in many African countries. He is regularly approached by both local and international media for comments on political and social issues on the continent. His publication record spans from books (as editor), book chapters, journal articles, monographs, research reports, and newspaper articles.

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