This week’s news makes painful reading for policy makers in Beijing. Much focus has been on the perception of a backlash against Chinese involvement across the continent. It is difficult to say whether news of Sata’s victory has catalysed the expression of disaffection for Chinese practices, or whether news sources have looked harder for stories around African rejection of China’s role. Either way, it is a challenging time for Chinese interests on the continent.
First of all workers at NFCA’s Chambishi copper mine in Zambia downed tools last week in protest against poor pay. Strike action is likely to be a more common problem for Chinese mines in Zambia now that miners have clear political support for their complaints. Protests spread to a nearby Chinese copper refinery, Sino-Metals later in the week. Miners will feel confident of getting concessions from the mining companies under current conditions.
An interesting article in PRI last week investigated conditions at the Collum coal mine, at which a shooting last year caused so much controversy. They report that conditions have improved but that miners continue to feel that they are overworked and underpaid. A particular issue has been the casualization of working practices whereby workers are paid when they are needed, but have little contractual protection.
High expectations after Sata’s victory may be difficult for both mining companies and the Zambian government to manage. While pay will likely increase, conditions are unlikely to improve significantly, especially in small mines and enterprises where profit margins are tight. A trade-off is likely to arise between employment and workers’ rights.
This problem is not only common to mining. Strikes in South Africa at Chinese textile plants have resulted in the closure of factories. The imposition of minimum wage legislation and minimum labour standards has caused less responsible factories to close, resulting in job losses. Workers whose jobs are at risk have complained that the targeted closures of factories are linked to vested interests in higher cost sections of the industry, who wish to do away with the competition.
Protests this week correlate well with middle income countries in which China has a strong interest. The third example from this week comes from Ghana where poor practices have brought about a halt to the construction of a major road in the Volta region, after China Jiang International Construction Company failed to comply with Ghana’s labour laws. The company reportedly banned employees from joining a union and failed to pay compensation after serious injuries occurred. This comes after back and forth between the government and opposition around the value of a $3bn Chinese loan.
In Liberia too the opposition Congress for Democratic Change party in the imminent election seems to have copied Sata’s Patriotic Front, in accusing the ruling party of taking campaign donations from China. Recent Nobel laureate President Johnson-Sirleaf has denied the claim and defended the role of China in the country. However after the success of Sata’s campaign this will become a tempting ploy for opposition parties.
While none of these events are catastrophic for Beijing in of themselves, they represent a worrying trend for Beijing’s policy makers. What is clear is that China will have to work hard to win over populations throughout Africa who are familiar with and receptive to a political narrative of exploitation.