Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Does Chinese Employment Benefit Africans? Investigating Chinese Enterprises and Their Operations in Africa

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Does Chinese Employment Benefit Africans? Investigating Chinese Enterprises and Their Operations in Africa

Article excerpt

Introduction

Chinese enterprises have been rapidly expanding their business footprints in Africa. The bi-lateral trade volume between China and Africa has risen from US $29.5 billion in 2004 to US $221.67 billion in 2014, representing an average growth rate of 30 percent per year. China has become Africa's largest trade partner. The foreign direct investment (FDI) stock from mainland China to Africa reached US$32.35 billion in 2014, over thirty-five times more than the figure merely ten years ago. (1) According to China's Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM)'s registration database, there were more than 3000 Chinese enterprises operating in Africa as of January 2015. (2)

With this backdrop of intensifying economic interaction, public opinions and media have paid special attention to the employment practices of Chinese companies in Africa. Much of this publicity is negative. Some observers express concerns--that Chinese companies prefer to bring a large number of Chinese workers to Africa and are unwilling to hire local workers. (3) Ben Schiller reported that tens of thousands of Chinese laborers and engineers were imported to build infrastructure projects in Ethiopia, Sudan and other African countries. This makes the acute unemployment problem in Africa even worse. (4) Others complain about low wages. The International Trade Union Confederation's Hong Kong Liaison Office (IHLO) suggested that Chinese companies' wage is among the lowest in many African countries and they usually pay less than other foreign investors. (5) Another criticism is that working conditions in Chinese enterprises are problematic, often involving health and safety hazards and long working hours. (6) For example, an explosion accident at the Beijing General Research Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (BGRIMM) 2005 killed 52 Zambian employees and provoked fierce resentment from the local community against the Chinese investors. (7) Finally, doubts are raised about Chinese companies' contribution to the development of the continent's human capital. A World Bank research paper states: "Chinese firms tend to rely on their own low-cost labor and do not invest heavily in the training and education of African workers." (8) Southern Africa Resource Watch also stated that "technology transfer to local people is not a feature of most Chinese investment." (9)

However, most of these comments are based on individual experiences or scattered case studies. Systematic research in this area has been scarce. To what extent are these perceptions about Chinese companies' employment practice true? Can we map out a precise picture of Chinese employment patterns? Further, do Chinese employment patterns contribute to Africa's own development and benefit African workers? Or do Chinese enterprises rather exploit Africa's cheap labor and bring damage to local communities? Below, this paper begins with investigating the nature of Chinese companies' employment practices in Africa and explores the reasons behind these practices. Based on the findings, it tries to analyze the benefits and harms of the Chinese employment pattern. The paper proposes that the evaluation of an employment pattern should consider not only employers' or employees' direct interests, but also a country's comprehensive social, economic and cultural development. Yet, Chinese enterprises, African workers, local governments and other related parties have different views on the reality of these broad issues. These diverging ideas often lead to conflicts and cause damage to both enterprises and employees. In contrast, when Chinese and Africans understand each other's visions and adjust their positions to converge, the cooperation can sustain and bring benefits to both sides. Therefore, I argue that mutual learning is the key to realizing mutual beneficial employment practice.

In order to present a comprehensive and precise picture, this article combines data collection with in-depth interviews and case studies. …

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