Africa shifting to deal with Chinese workforce

By Mark Kapchanga Source:Global Times Published: 2013-2-20 19:43:01


Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Africa is turning out to be a new home for Chinese people. Four years after he entered Kenya, a Mr Liu says he may not head back to his rural home in East China's Fujian Province anytime soon.

Having taken part in the construction of the just completed Thika Superhighway, the father of three says he plans to open up a retail business or get another job in the country.

This worker represents the latest wave of Chinese migrants to Africa. To date, there have been more than 810,000. Lucrative earnings, coupled with enormous businesses opportunities, have motivated the majority to remain behind, despite their work permits expiring.

Some have also been drawn in by Africa's vast arable land, which they intend to turn into a gold mine.

Li Ruogu, chairman and president of the Export-Import Bank of China, once suggested that there was no harm in allowing Chinese farmers to leave the country to become farmers in Africa. He argued that the institution would support a migration that was investment-oriented.

For some time, the issue of China in Africa has attracted a great deal of attention. Reactions in the US and Europe have often seen the process as a threat rather than an opportunity.

The major concern has been the impact of Chinese businesses on local employment.

While a huge amount of inflowing Chinese capital has created thousands of new jobs for Africans, the Chinese entrepreneurs and workforce come with low costs and wages to compete with local companies and labor.

Chinese migrants and former laborers on construction projects are opening businesses, which they stock with cheap products from contacts back home.

The newcomers have already caused uneasiness in some corners. Their arrival has been linked to the closing-down of local firms and rising unemployment.

Anti-Chinese resentments have been prominent in Lesotho, Zambia, Angola and South Sudan. In extreme cases, the clash has turned violent. More than a few Chinese have been maimed with some even killed.

In August 2012, Zambian coal miners killed a Chinese mine manager Wu Shengzai during a protest over poor pay. This happened barely two years after two Chinese supervisors at a coal mine were charged with attempted murder of 13 Zambian miners.

The resistance to the Chinese population buildup is concentrated more in small economies where there are increasing numbers of Chinese small businesses and poor Chinese labor practices. The scenario, however, tends to be different in more stable economies.

South Africa, Africa's largest economy, is less anti-Chinese. In fact, many people are rather appreciative of the fact that Chinese goods are broadly available and more affordable.

This explains a major part of the South African immigrant population is Asian. Currently, an estimated 200,000 ethnic Chinese live in the country.

To avert the negative sentiments troubling Chinese investments, labor rules are being fine-tuned to accommodate the needs of the local population.

This will see only Chinese migrants with work permits are in employment. Tough crackdowns have also been launched in Ghana and Tanzania. Those participating in retail businesses famously referred to as juakali (the informal economy in parts of Africa) are prosecuted.

Last year, the Tanzanian government gave hundreds of Chinese illegal migrants 30 days to vacate local markets claiming that they had come in as investors only for them to be discovered moonlighting as vendors or shoe-shiners.

The cry to make lean Chinese workforce in companies is still a major issue across the continent.

Firms found to be flouting labor requirements have faced heavy penalties. In extreme cases, their operational licenses have been revoked.

In Angola where China's presence is heaviest in the continent, local workers make up about 75 percent of the workforce. On average, however, a Chinese worker is more efficient than his Angolan counterpart with the same capacity.

This has been attributed to Chinese workers' discipline and hardworking. But interestingly, the high efficiency appears to come with a price for Africa.

Chinese workers on average earn approximately 60 percent more than their local counterparts. They also expose their employers to more costs related to accommodation, at least one trip a year back home, work permit and medical care.

With tough guidelines spelt out, companies are now trying to replace Chinese employees with the locals.

This is being achieved mainly by training local employees to raise their skill levels. Some firms are also using more local managers to integrate enterprises and to improve productivity.

The author is a journalist on African issues based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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