Across Africa and throughout the West there is a widespread belief that a good portion of the Chinese construction workers building infrastructure across the continent are actually prisoners who have been forcibly enslaved to work in Africa. So the reason why Chinese companies allegedly do not hire locals, according to this legend, is because there is such an abundant supply of convict labor that can be conscripted to work long hours and endure brutal working conditions.
This myth is so widely trafficked, and not just among poorly-informed social media commentators but also among supposedly well-informed academics and highly-respected news organizations, that is some ways it has become an accepted truth.’Of course the Chinese import convicts,’ how else can you explain the barbed wire that surrounds construction sites, or the shabby conditions so many of their workers live in and the fact that they often have to work seven days a week?
Well, the reality is that barbed wire is often intended to keep people on OUTside from coming rather than incarcerating those on the INside. While they may not be prisoners, it is fair to say their living conditions are often comparable to those of inmates, which comes as a surprise to many in Africa who often mistakenly assume that all foreigners live the luxurious lifestyle of a white aid worker. As for overtime, well, for many Chinese contractors that is a foreign concept. There is no overtime. You work until the job is done. Period.
While the often harsh labor policies of many Chinese companies are out of sync with the commonly accepted standards in Africa, and elsewhere, the workers are most certainly not slaves nor is there any evidence they are convicts.
Despite the confidence of those who propagate this myth, there is no empirical proof to confirm their suspicions. Scholars from around the world have scoured Africa and Chinese work sites looking for even a sliver of proof that the Chinese are importing forced labor to work in Africa. To date, no one has found any indication that this widely-believed myth is actually true.
While many people mistakenly believe that the Chinese do not hire local employees, new research confirms that the vast majority of workers on these sites, upwards of 90% in Kenya for example, are locally-hired. The instances where Chinese companies use expatriate labor tend to be for either highly-skilled positions or in circumstances where local labor is simply unavailable (such as working in extremely remote areas building rail lines and highways), according to Luo Yating, program manager at the Kenya-based think tank Sino-Africa Centre for Excellence Foundation (SACE).
Yating challenged a number of the prevailing misperceptions about Chinese labor practices in Kenya in a new research paper that she presented at a recent SACE China-Africa conference held in Nairobi. She joins Eric & Cobus to discuss her findings and to explain why the Chinese have such a bad reputation for labor relations in Africa.
- Hong Kong University of Science & Technology: Localizing Chinese Enterprises in Africa: from Myths to Policies by Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong
- China in Africa/The Real Story blog: Is China Sending Prisoners Overseas to Work? by Deborah Brautigam
- The Huffington Post: Why Does China Send Workers To Africa When So Many Here Are Unemployed? by Eric Olander
About Luo Yating
Luo Yating is a programme manager at the Sino Africa Centre of Excellence Foundation (SACE Foundation) in Nairobi, Kenya. Yating holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences degree with majors in Politics and Economics at the University of Hong Kong, she graduated in June 2015. She completed her Foundation Year at Peking University and an exchange program at King’s College London.