China’s enormous investment in Africa: A blessing or a curse?

Written by Lee Cheuk Yan


Xi Jin-ping said, at the Leaders Roundtable of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, “…we must strengthen international anti-corruption cooperation and make the "Belt and Road" a road to integrity.” It reminded me of Ho Chi-ping, who was being prosecuted by the FBI of the United States and was refused bail applications, for helping CEFC China Energy Company Limited to bribe state leaders of three African countries for rights of energy mining and other investment opportunities.   Ho Chi-ping is only one of the many “white gloves” for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with the Belt and Road Initiative in the background.


To investigate the impact of Chinese capital on labour conditions in the countries along the Belt and Road Initiative, I proposed to International Trade Union Confederation Council to deploy a study group.  In early July, I joined the 4-member ITUC study group, in the capacity of Secretary General of HKCTU, together with Deputy Secretary General of ITUC and staff.  The purpose of the study group was to find out if the enormous investment from China is a blessing or a curse to the African people.  The study group visited three African countries, namely Nigeria, Zambia and Ethiopia, and met local unions, government officials, employer organizations and workers to find out the truth.

Lee Cheuk-yan (first left) and 3 representatives from ITUC.


The CCP has a clear strategy: plunder resources through investment, export China’s excess capacity and labour, and gain economic interest and political influence.  As for the receiving countries, capital provided by the CCP is vital for the dictators to perpetuate their political status.


In all the three African countries, the unions are most resentful of the fact that unions, employers and the civil societies were excluded from the process of signing investment agreement with the Chinese government.  Moreover, as the agreements are confidential, the unions have no ways to learn about the agreement details such as conditions of lending, concessionary terms for investments, regulation on employing Chinese workers, etc.  They only know that all infrastructure, mining and free trade areas are contracted to Chinese-owned companies.  Zero transparency is the bed of corruption.  No one knows how many “Ho Chi-ping” are there, and if there is any secret deal between the CCP and leaders of the African states.


The unions in these three countries are also dissatisfied that “talent admission plans” do not include terms on skills transfer.  While CCP investment projects will import large number of managerial and skilled workers from China and affect employment opportunities of local workers, the lack of skills transfer plan will not help local workers to be upgraded to skilled positions.

The unions in the three countries unanimously criticized the Chinese capital for not respecting workers’ rights to organize and collective bargaining, and the situation is most critical in the free trade areas.  Chinese companies in the free trade areas are given tax concession while workers are banned from unionizing. In other countries, though workers are not explicitly banned from organizing unions, managerial measures are used to limit unions’ activities in the free trade areas.  One may find Xi Jin-ping’s speech on the free trade areas ironic: “… advance the building of free trade areas and promote liberalization and facilitation of trade and investment. Of course, we should also focus on resolving issues such as imbalances in development, difficulties in governance, digital divide and income disparity and make economic globalization open, inclusive, balanced and beneficial to all.”  How could a free trade area which prohibits activities of unions be “beneficial to all”?


According to the union reports of these three countries, the Chinese capital totally disrespected basic unions rights and, with the help of the local governments, suppressed strikes with police force and army.  In a copper mine in Zambia, a Chinese manager fired at workers on strike.  The manager was sent back to China without any follow up action.  The manufacturing industry union in Ethiopia complained that in the Huajian Shoes Factory, which appeared in the CCP documentary to promote Belt and Road Initiative, workers who tried to organize the union were dismissed after a senior manager announced through live streaming that union would not be tolerated.  In Zambia, Huajian has been delaying the process of collective bargaining with the union for 4 years and claimed that documents have to be translated and submitted to the headquarters before the process could go on.  The union quoted one of the Chinese managers in the factory, “The factory applies Chinese laws”.   Factories owned by the Chinese capitals are operated as their colonies.


The Ethiopian union has released a report on women workers’ conditions in Chinese enterprises.  The research found that women workers in the textile industries are facing extremely long working hours, lack of changing room facilities, no provision of maternity leave, being beaten and sexually harassed by supervisors, and the Chinese supervisors tend to recruit good-looking women.  Occupational safety was least considered. Our visit to a Chinese-owned leather factory started with repulsive smell of chemicals at the entrance of the workshop, which would definitely cause health damage in the long run.  According to the workers, there was no air filtering apparatus and the employer only provided them with ordinary masks.  The stimulating chemicals also affected their eyesight but the safety goggles provided by the employer were useless as they hindered their work.  In the eyes of the employers, workers were merely production tools. 

In conclusion of the study trip, the Chinese companies in Africa totally disregarded union rights, not to mention sharing economic benefits with the workers.  The HKCTU recommends the ITUC to continue monitoring labour right conditions of the Chinese companies in Africa and exert pressure on the brand-names and the Chinese government to improve working conditions, alongside with research on labour conditions of Chinese enterprises in Asia-Pacific region.


The ITUC, together with the African unions, will file a joint complaint with the ILO on the violation of No 87and 98 of the International Labour Convention, which pronounce workers’ right to free association and collective bargaining, by some African countries.  To the rich and powerful, Xi Jin-ping’s Belt and Road Initiative is a road to fortune, while the grassroots workers are still living from hand to mouth.  Only unions can ensure that workers share the benefits of wealth and development.  The HKCTU is obliged to promote and support workers’ rights across borders.  Unite! Workers of the world!