Chinese companies free to exploit workers in Zimbabwe

They are the biggest employers in Zimbabwe, they win all major construction tenders, since they are considered the most competent and the best equipped. However, Chinese companies offer poor working conditions in terms of rights, wages, health and safety measures.

HARARE - Workers claim that the managers can fire and hire without notice, that they can even beat those who try and report abuses. The Chinese, they say, have a kind of diplomatic protection in the country.

“The Chinese seem to have immunity to prosecution and arrest” claims Zimbabwe Construction and Allied Trade Union General Secretary, Nicholas Mazarura.

“One day a worker was beaten badly by an employer in Highfield, he was bleeding. So the unionists reported the fact to the local Police station but they were told to solve that issue on their own, since they had instructions not to arrest the Chinese who are “friends of the country”. But it is still unclear who gave these instructions.

“We appreciate these companies for reducing unemployment in our country but we just need them to observe our labour laws, we are not in China” Mr Mazarura comments.

China has benefited much so far from the government of Zimbabwe’s East-oriented policy, and Chinese companies are actually rebuilding a country that was nearly destroyed after Robert Mugabe’s long regime, with growing inflation, de-industrialisation, shortages of food and resources.

In April 2010 the two governments signed an Agreement on economic and technical cooperation and the trade levels doubled to US$ 800 million in the last two years. According to the Chinese Embassy in Harare, China has contributed to various projects in Zimbabwe so far, worth over US$25 million.

“My hope is that my country can cope with a variety of challenges in its development, such as energy, water supply, roads and education, and China can play a significant role in this process” said Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister, during a recent meeting on Sino-African cooperation in Beijing.

Given such a scenario, it is hard for the workers to complain and report against violations of rights. It is hard to demand for better wages, since they are paid US$5 a day, instead of the national rate of US$11.

In the construction sector, for instance, workers are not paid by the hours but upon the amount of work accomplished. Also, they have quite scarce safety clothing such as helmets, overalls, gloves, face and nose masks, safety shoes.

“The Chinese bosses accuse us of being lazy, that we do not want to work for our country. But we are forced to work 8 hours during the day plus 6 hours in the evening even if officially they are complying with the Zimbabwean law which contemplates a work day of 8 hours”, says Peter Dube, employed by a company owned by the Chinese Defence Forces and the Zimbabwe Defence Forces. This company is building a luxurious hotel in the capital Harare.

“If you do not want to work in the evening then you risk being fired without pay and benefits. Construction work is very hard and requires adequate time to rest. But if you do so, they simply fire you and replace you on the very next day”.

Peter doesn’t have any safety shoes but just tennis shoes provided by the company, even though they work with metals and cement, at constant risk of injuries.

Workers accuse the Chinese to have no regard for Zimbabweans’ welfare and to mind only for maximizing their profits. On the other hand, Zimbabwean economy is still weak, jobs are scarce and who wants to work must accept even the most dangerous conditions.

The Construction union started several fights with the Chinese companies but they seem untouchable.

“Every day it is a challenge to make sure they comply with the country’s laws. We have reported labour violations to the Ministry of Labour and Social Services but nothing has been done to date” says Mr Mazarura.

“We currently have a serious dispute with this company building the new hotel in Harare, for which they have employed 180 people. Workers were not given any transport allowance, so most of them had to sleep outside the construction site. When we asked to go and inspect working conditions we were forbidden to enter the premises and we were told to first have clearance from the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF)”.

It took six months to get that clearance and when the union finally got it the construction was already completed. The company just terminated 180 workers’ contracts without notice and when the unions reported the issue to ZDF they were just told to make a list with the names of the affected workers. However, nothing has been done so far.

“The same company is now building a hotel near the National Sports stadium, and the workers there are not adequately protected. They were given just a pair of tennis shoes as safety shoes, they do not have gloves, nose masks and some do not have even helmets” Mr Mazarura adds.

“When we accuse them they always say that Zimbabweans must work even for nothing, simply because the Chinese are using their equipment and money to help rebuild Zimbabwe, so they are not supposed to spend on ‘luxuries’ like safety clothing”.