Opposition to Chinese companies’ labour practices in Zimbabwe

The Brussels-based news and campaign website Equal Times, funded by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), reports that 2,000 Zimbabwean workers employed by Anhui Construction Company (AFECC) in the construction of the new National Defence College with a loan from China Export and Import Bank were fired.

Unions say that those companies can fire and hire without notice, that they can even beat those who try and report abuses.

“The Chinese seem to have immunity to prosecution and arrest” claims Zimbabwe Construction and Allied Trade Union General Secretary, Nicholas Mazarura.

A few months ago a worker was badly attacked by an employer in Highfield, he was bleeding.

The unionists reported the fact to the local Police station but they were told to solve that issue on their own, since they had instructions not to arrest the Chinese who are “friends of the country”. But it is still unclear who gave these instructions.

The article claims that Chinese companies force workers to work overtime and without adequate safety equipment.

“The Chinese bosses accuse us of being lazy, that we do not want to work for our country. But we are forced to work 8 hours during the day plus 6 hours in the evening even if officially they are complying with the Zimbabwean law which contemplates a work day of 8 hours”,  Peter Dube, employed by a company owned by the Chinese Defence Forces and the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, told Equal Times. (…)

“When we accuse them they always say that Zimbabweans must work even for nothing, simply because the Chinese are using their equipment and money to help rebuild Zimbabwe, so they are not supposed to spend on ‘luxuries’ like safety clothing,” a union leader said.

Similar, but more nuanced and much better documented reports have in the last year come out of Zambia (notably a recent Human Rights Watch report) and Angola, the latter focusing in part on the construction industry. Some scholars have attacked them as inaccurate and inherently biased as they focus only on Chinese employers.

This particular report does not seem particularly well researched, and unlike others it has a strident tone. The charge that the workers on the construction of the defence college were fired after the construction ended also seems somewhat surprising, since (a) until now the main charge against Chinese construction projects has tended to be that they do not employ local workers, and (b) how can the company maintain a local labour force if it has finished its activity in the country?

Nonetheless, while for Anhui Construction the need to be flexible with the size of its labour force may be completely obvious, as it cannot predict when and where it will gain another contract, from the perspective of a country in which socialist-style labour protection has a strong tradition and which, unlike elsewhere in Africa, has largely resisted World Bank-style restructuring, these charges are understandable.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this report is that in Zimbabwe, too, labour unions seem to be starting to organise against Chinese owners — despite what I think should be the tight links of organised labour to the ruling ZANU.


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