Did media hype up Kenyans’ abuse claims?

By Mark Kapchanga Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/5 21:23:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

For the better part of last month, Kenya was outraged following media reports that workers were being mistreated and racially abused by their Chinese counterparts in the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) - a line connecting the country's capital Nairobi to the port city of Mombasa. 

It was reported that in the SGR, Chinese nationals had "created a small kingdom" in which they abuse workers, make them overwork and pay less. Locals said what they were seeing was more of neo-colonialism, racism and blatant discrimination in their own country.

So weighty did the issue become that it attracted the attention of authorities. The Kenya Railways and different trade unions called for calmness, saying they, together with the police, were investigating the allegations. On the other hand, government spokesman Eric Kiraithe called on Kenyans to gather the courage to tackle issues related with work ethics.

In what was seen as a deviation from the norm, the spokesman went further to say that while it is the government's duty to protect the rights and dignity of every Kenyan, workers have to learn how things are to be done rather than complaining in the media.

It is a statement that was corroborated by Chinese Ambassador to Kenya Sun Baohong, who accused the media of sensationalism and distortion, saying she cannot accept modern-day racism, colonialism and apartheid.

The ambassador appreciated the fact that the company operating the railway was new in the kind of business that involved cross-cultural teams. As a result, claims of mistreatment of workers might have arisen from the lack of mature structures in place to tackle such challenges.

This is not the first time China is facing a backlash over claims of discrimination and mistreatment of locals at the work place.

In 2012, workers on Zimbabwe's National Defence College construction project said they suffered regular beatings and miserable pay and working conditions.

In 2011, then Zambia's president Michael Sata said he would ensure he fights against the abuse and improve government regulation of the mining industry to ensure that all Chinese companies respect Zambia's labor laws. Sata had accused Chinese-run copper mining companies of persistent abuses, including poor health and safety conditions, regular 12-hour and even 18-hour shifts involving arduous labor, and anti-union activities, all in violation of national laws.

But are these claims as bad as they appear in the media? If so, is it not time China worked closely with African countries to come up with long-term strategies to address these issues before they snowball?

Such misunderstandings breed animosity, and may ultimately harm the harmonious relationship between Chinese firms operating in African countries and the locals.

To the best of my knowledge, these claims seem to be emanating from language barriers and cultural differences rather than from any deliberate effort to mistreat local workers. However, the media never explains this. Instead, because of their bias, they come up with sensational stories that are usually distorted with the aim of giving a bad name to China's entry into African countries.

To meet these challenges, China needs to work closely with African nations in intensifying cross-cultural exchange. Firms operating in Africa should set aside funds that would impart knowledge to local workers and boost their capacity. Local workers can routinely be flown to China for capacity building, which would also expose them to the Chinese way of doing things, particularly at the work place.

But this should not be a one-way affair. Chinese expatriates working in African countries need to also take time to learn how the locals work. Where there are gaps, a middle ground is needed between the parties without necessarily compromising on the final output. We saw this during the construction of the 45-kilometer Thika Superhighway about a decade ago when 24-hour work culture was introduced. It took time for the locals to understand that for work to be completed, shifts must be used.

Training and awareness also need to be used and intensified to curb future misunderstandings between locals and the Chinese workers at the workplace. A harmonious Africa-China cooperation stands to benefit both parties.

The author is a researcher and expert on China-Africa cooperation based in Nairobi, Kenya. Follow him on Twitter @kapchanga. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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