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Chinese companies under scrutiny in Zimbabwe

Ten years into the Look East policy, Zimbabwe is showing itself to be a not-so-satisfied customer of Chinese investment.

About a decade ago, the government of Zimbabwe launched the much-hyped “Look East Policy” in an attempt to offset the loss on western investments in the wake of the country’s economic collapse. The government wanted to capitalise on the fast growing Asian economy after the relationship between Harare and US and EU countries went sour following the Zanu PF government’s chaotic land reform programme in 2000.

The initial policy leaned towards Malaysia and it later shifted towards China. But is the Look East Policy, which has resulted in China’s effective colonisation of the country, the panacea to Zimbabwe’s socio-economic problems?

Although complaints most commonly voiced in Zimbabwe are about the poor quality of Chinese goods, the flip side is that low prices have made many types of goods accessible to people who could not have dreamed of owning them before, even though the ownership experience is relatively short.

Because of the poor quality of Chinese products, Zimbabweans have termed them “Zhingzhong”. But this has not deterred the Chinese businesspeople, who have spread their tentacles to various sectors of the economy, from mining down to the stalls at flea markets, thereby effectively bootinga locals out of business. Local manufacturers cannot compete with cheap products from China and observers are worried that the aggressive Chinese are slowly taking over the country.

MDC-T legislator, Obert Gutu recently warned the Zimbabwe government that “modern-day China is a capitalist nation and the majority of its corporations may be state-owned, but they are fiercely capitalistic in both their mode of production and marketing”.

“They are first and foremost, profit-driven. There are absolutely no meaningful benefits to be derived by Africa if small and weak African nations continue to enter into fragmented and uncoordinated bilateral economic contracts with China,” claimed Gutu a renowned legal expert.

The operations of Chinese companies in Zimbabwe have come under scrutiny amid reports that the Chinese companies were ill-treating and exploiting local employees.

Against this backdrop, a high-level delegation from the Overseas Chinese Affairs Committee (OCC) of the National People’s Congress of China came to Zimbabwe in June this year to encourage Chinese nationals to live harmoniously with locals in an effort to boost relations between the two countries. 

The leader of the Chinese delegation, Yu Linxiang, who is the chairperson of the OCC however, said trade between the two countries was increasing and now amounted to more than $500 million despite the reports of poor relationships between Chinese companies and their Zimbabwean employees. 

However, hardly three months after the visit by the high-powered delegation, Chinese companies have yet again been accused of physically abusing, overworking and underpaying employees. In the eastern border city of Mutare in Manicaland, a labour wrangle exploded recently at a Chinese-run construction company, Sogecoa Zimbabwe (Pvt) Company- where workers took their employer to the Labour Court accusing the company of exploiting them and violating their rights. Sogecoa is a sister to the diamond company, Anjin, one of the companies awarded licences to mine Marange diamonds. The workers said they were being paid a measly US$4 a day for working long hours.  

The $4 a day was far below the gazetted Zimbabwe National Employment Council (NEC) Construction rates. The National Employment Council rates for the construction industry vary between US$1, 06 and $1, 51 per hour with a 44 hour week.

Workers at another local construction company in Harare were recently up in arms against their Chinese employer whom they accuse of ill-treating them. 
Shanxi Corporation workers were accusing their employer of charging them exorbitant rentals for sub-standard company accommodation, according to media reports.

The National Union of Quarry Workers of Zimbabwe early this year also accused Chinese employers at Ngezi Mine in Zvishavane in Midlands Province of allegedly ill-treating and underpaying their workers. Union leader Onias Munenga was quoted in the press as saying the Chinese miners were not abiding by the country’s labour laws.

And on September 2, 2011, the Zimbabwe Construction and Allied Workers’ Union chairperson Enjula Mpofu told delegates at the Build It Expo in Harare that the union had problems with Chinese employers ill-treating workers.
“We are trying to work to address these issues and we are engaging the Ministry of Labour regarding these matters. We have problems with Chinese employers who are ill-treating workers. They do not give them protective clothing: they work in tattered overalls. The Chinese say nothing can be done to them because they have government immunity,” she said. 

The Confederation Industry Federation of Zimbabwe president Philip Chiyangwa told the same expo that he was not amused by the level of cruelty by the Chinese:

“We have failed to put heads together and make sure those who come, do not eat first before us. We have laws that protect us, but there are people who are making sure they give preference to Chinese who are even beating up workers here. Along Borrowdale Road (in Harare), they start working at 4am until 12midnight with some lights on in the middle of the night and the Chinese monitoring the Zimbabweans working.”

But the inaction by the government is baffling as unscrupulous Chinese companies continue to ill-treat employees with impunity.

Last year, the government said it was probing Chinese companies for ill-treating workers and violating health and safety regulations.  Zimbabwe Labour minister Paurina Mpariwa told a local newspaper last year that the National Social Security Authority (NSSA) had instituted the probe after receiving reports that the Chinese were ill-treating workers to the extent of even physically assaulting them. Initial findings, she said, were that some of the companies were not even registered.

“National Social Security Authority through its Occupational Safety and Health Division conducted the necessary investigations through site visits to ascertain the accurate position. Of the companies visited so far it was established that eight companies were violating health and safety regulations. The major violated regulations,” she said, “included lack of toilet provisions, poor electrical installations, lack of personal protective clothing, absence of personal guards on moving machinery and non registration of the companies. NSSA suspended operations at the sites until all safety requirements are met. Where fatal accidents occurred, the authority recommended prosecution and the prosecution procedure is being followed”

But a year on, nothing has so far been done to improve the welfare of employees working for Chinese companies.

 

About the author

Andrew Mambondiyani is a journalist based in Zimbabwe. He recently served as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT (USA) and a Middlebury Environmental Journalism Fellow (USA). He has covered illegal mining in Zimbabwe for over five years.

 


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