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[AUDIO] Who’d you rather work for in Kenya: a U.S. or Chinese company?

[AUDIO] Who’d you rather work for in Kenya: a U.S. or Chinese company?

Chinese companies, generally, have a terrible reputation in Africa when it comes to labor relations. There are widely-held perceptions PRC firms are often abusive, insensitive and generally have a poor track record when dealing with African employees. Reports of human rights violations at Zambian mines, late pay for Kenyan railway workers and poor treatment of construction crews in Cameroon are just a few examples of the kinds of infractions that have gone a long way to shape the narrative about Chinese labor relations across Africa.

“The particular politicization of Chinese labor issues, feeding on global negative discourses of China in Africa, likely contributes to a distorted understanding of labor issues at Chinese companies in Kenya: the expectation that Chinese bosses are the worst shapes the impressions and encounters of employees, unions, government officials and other actors.”  — Zander Rounds & Huang Hongxiang

To fully understand this issue, though, we have to ask two key questions:

  • Although many of the instances of Chinese labor abuses in countries like Zambia, Ghana and elsewhere in Africa have been verified by journalists, NGOs and governments, do these represent the exception or the norm? 

Chinese companies employ tens of thousands of workers across Africa in everything from construction to manufacturing to IT, so determining exactly an accurate scope of alleged labor violations is extremely important. Unfortunately, to do a research study on such a large scale is logistically difficult, extremely expensive and maybe not even possible given that most Chinese companies would likely be very reluctant to participate in this kind of  investigation.

  • Are employment relations at Chinese companies in Africa better or worse than those at other foreign-owned companies?

The Zambian Lesson

In 2013, Sino-Africa scholars Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong compared labor conditions at Chinese-run Zambian copper mines with those of other foreign-ownedmines. Contrary to the perception that Chinese-owned mining companies were more abusive, Professors Sautman and Yan discovered that PRC firms generally have similar labor relations with their workers as do companies from other countries: “our findings show that all foreign-owned mining houses are exploiters of Zambian workers an  Zambian resources, but CNMC (a Chinese state-owned mining company) is neither the worst abuser nor the super-exploiter.”

Considering both the perceptions of poor labor relations at Chinese companies in Africa and the findings by Sautman and Yan that sometimes those same perceptions are not always accurate, another pair of researchers decided to do a similar in study in Kenya. In a working paper written for the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.Zander Rounds and Huang Hongxiangcompared employment relations at both Chinese and U.S. firms in Kenya.

Just as in the Chinese-run Zambian copper mines, there also appears to be a divergent gap between the perception and reality when examining Chinese and U.S. labor relations in Kenya. Their conclusions were not as clear cut as many might have expected. Zander joins Eric & Cobus to discuss their findings and how Chinese and American companies in Kenya struggle with many of the same employment issues.

Show Notes:

About Zander Rounds:

Zander Rounds is Nairobi-based researcher who has done extensive work on Chinese labor relations and corporate social responsibility in Kenya. Zander is a graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and a recent Fulbright scholar. He has traveled repeatedly to China since 2007 and am currently lives and works with the Chinese communities in Nairobi. Zander writes and conducts extensive research on Chinese-African relations (economics, politics, people), democratization in Africa and international development.

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About Eric Olander

Eric Olander is the founder and Editor in Chief of The China Africa Project. Eric is a veteran international journalist with 20+ years experience throughout Greater China, Africa, the United States and Europe. Eric is currently based in Southeast Asia where he is the senior news executive with a leading 24-hour all business news cable TV network.