Chinafrica: African workers share experiences at Chinese factories
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Xi Jinping, China’s new president, has chosen to visit to Africa as part of his first foreign tour – and for good reason. With more than 2,000 businesses operating on the continent and making more than 36 billion dollars a year, China has in just a few years become Africa’s top commercial partner. From Togo to the Democratic Republic of Congo, our African Observers employed by Chinese companies told us about their jobs.
A Chinese man watches over a roadworks project in Kinshasa, the capital of DR Congo. All photos were taken by our Observer Kevin Diakimuntu Kedika.
Xi Jinping, China’s new president, has chosen to visit to Africa as part of his first foreign tour – and for good reason. With more than 2,000 businesses operating on the continent and making more than 36 billion dollars a year, China has in just a few years become Africa’s number one business partner. From Togo to the Democratic Republic of Congo, our African Observers employed by Chinese companies told us about their jobs.
On August 4, a Chinese official from a carbon mine in southern Zambia was killed by miners who rebelled against salaries they considered to be too low. The Zambian workers demanded that the mine owners bring their pay up to the minimum wage level set by the government. Two years earlier, at the same mine, concerns over wages and security had already led to a violent confrontation in which two officials from Collum Coal mine opened fire on striking miners, injuring several of them.
Throughout Africa, more and more protests against Chinese companies have been held in the past few years, whether to demand better salaries or to denounce the detrimental effect that the Chinese competition has had on African-owned businesses. (At African markets, Chinese products are sold at much lower prices than local products).
Trade between China and Africa has grown ten-fold over the past decade. Originally seeking raw materials, Chinese businesses seized the opportunity to invest heavily in Africa’s poor infrastructure while taking advantage of cheap local labour. In China, the minimum wage is approximately 100 to 180 euros per month, depending on the region. In Africa, workers’ salaries vary from country to country, but for manual labour, they are generally less than 100 euros per month.
If you work for a Chinese firm and would like to share your experience, please post your comments at the bottom of the page.
“They never gave us boots or shirts, not even helmets to protect us from the sun”
Mitterrand Kalama, 26, is a labourer for a Chinese firm that upgrades roads in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I work from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Sunday under the blazing sun. We repeatedly asked the bosses to provide work clothes because we see that labourers at other Chinese construction sites are better-equipped. Apart from gloves and a vest that they won’t replace when damaged, they never gave us boots or shirts, not even helmets to protect us from the sun.
The employers behave like they’re better than us. A few days ago, a labourer even slapped a superior who injured his mother just because he came back later than expected after going to buy something. On top of this, the Chinese don’t speak Lingala [the main language spoken in DR Congo], and only speak a little French. Most of the workers on the construction site only speak Lingala. We communicate with them using a few words and hand signals, for example to ask to go to the toilet.
Our work is very hard, but we are underpaid: 2 dollars a day [Editors’ Note: The minimum wage in DR Congo was fixed at 3 dollars per day in 2008], which we get at the end of the month. There are often people checking on the worksite – employees from the World Bank, for example – and the Chinese tell them that we are paid five dollars a day. It’s not worth protesting over, though, because if we do, we’ll lose our jobs.
“The workers are paid per piece because the bosses know that’s more profitable”
Patrice, 41, works for a manufacturer of synthetic hair strands in Lomé, the capital of Togo.
I arrived at the company in 2001 and my salary went from 18,000 CFA to 35,000 CFA [27 euros to 53 euros] in 11 years thanks to a new law [In 2011, authorities set the minimum salary at 35,000 CFA, or 53 euros]. But despite my experience, I earn the same amount as the new recruits, which I find very unfair. As there are no jobs in Lomé, I don’t have any other choice but to stay. I work 10 hours a day at the shop. I prepare packages for orders from overseas clients. I work in better conditions than other workers in the company who make the strands. They have to use very noisy machines, and are paid per piece rather than a fixed salary. The bosses know that’s more profitable! They also know that people are forced to accept low wages in order to earn a living.
"The Chinese have a very strong work ethic; you get to learn a lot more than you would at a Senegalese company”
Daouda Diop, 29, is a project manager at a telecommunications company based in Dakar and travels for work throughout Africa.
The firm is not adhering to certain sections of the labour laws. After I was hired in 2007, they renewed my short-term contract a second time, which is illegal in Senegal. We protested along with other employees and finally were able to sign long-term contracts. The employers don’t pay social charges for employees, so we don’t contribute to our retirement pay and we don’t have health insurance.
Above all, we have communication problems with our Chinese superiors. They shout when they ask for things and behave like they own us. They openly give random cash bonuses to certain employees, which makes other employees angry. I think it’s their strategy: they rule by creating division. But despite the fact that - considering my level of studies - I earn less here than I would at a Senegalese company, I’d prefer to continue working with the Chinese because they have a strong work ethic, and you get to learn a lot more than you would at a national company.
“I worked at a construction site from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. with an hour’s break”
In 2004, Rigobert, 25, worked as a labourer at a construction site in Edéa, a city in western Cameroon.
I needed money to pay for school so I stopped my studies for six months to work as a labourer for a Chinese-owned company. The pace of work at the site was very fast. We worked from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. with an hour’s break for lunch. In Cameroon, labourers generally start work early but finish at 3 p.m. We were paid 36,000 CFA a month [about 55 euros. The minimum salary is CFA 23,500, or 36 euros]. There were often tensions about this because many of the workers protested and demanded 50,000 CFA [76 euros]. They provided us with a helmet, boots and gloves. The tasks were very difficult, but if we had an accident, the bosses allowed us to go home and rest.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Peggy Bruguière.