Africa is booming, and it’s largely due to Chinese investment.

China has been trading with Africa for centuries, but there is a new intensity to trade and investment. While much of the rest of the world suffers deep recession, African raw materials are flooding into Chinese factories, and China is building infrastructure across the continent. China is investing its surplus capital in Africa to create future markets for its goods.

This frightens the West, who have historically plundered Africa with impunity and no competition: in a recent visit to Africa, US secretary of state Hilary Clinton rather hypocritically compared US “commitment to democracy” with other powers “exploitation”.

And yet the charge of exploitation against Chinese companies in Africa often sticks, and is placed in the spotlight once more after the killing of a Chinese mine supervisor in Africa. IndustriaALL global union reports

“A Chinese supervisor at Collum Coal Mine in Zambia was killed and another seriously wounded after being hit by a trolley pushed at them by workers on 4 August 2012. Workers were angry that the mining company had failed to raise wages in line with new minimums set by the Zambian government.”

A report by Human Rights Watch into conditions on Chinese-owned mines catalogues abuses of workers, and in an earlier case, the Zambian government failed to prosecute Chinese supervisors who shot and killed workers.

According to Justina Jonas of Namibian manufacturing and construction union, BWI affiliate MANWU, the problem is not confined to Zambia: Jonas has compiled a report detailing a number of Chinese companies failing to pay the national minimum wage. It seems that part of the problem is that African governments fail to enforce their own labour laws for fear of offending Chinese investors.

And yet there are signs that powerful unions can challenge this exploitation and bring about more positive industrial relations. Erin Conway-Smith writes in the Global Post about South African unions forcing Chinese companies to adapt: to avoid expensive and disruptive industrial unrest, some companies are working with unions, and asking them in to organise their factories. Conway-Smith reports that Chinese staff are also joining the union, and writes about a Chinese shop steward’s first visit to the conference of textile workers’ union SACTWU.

This demonstrates what we have always know: union power works, and the best way to end exploitation is to build strong unions across Africa and across the world.




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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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