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Opinions of Thursday, 16 July 2020

Columnist: Afro-Sino Centre of International Relations

Zambia case study: Chinese labour practices marring relations on the African continent?

China has been accused of neo-colonialism in Africa, with many pointing to Chinese engagement in Zambia as an example of China exerting economic slavery on the continent. With Zambia’s relationship with China starting merely days after their independence, China is undoubtedly one of the oldest allies of Zambia. Post-independence, the Chinese assisted Zambia to get on its feet, highlighted in investments such as the building of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway (Tazara). Since then, cooperation between the two countries has taken off, with the Zambian former President Sata describing China as an ‘all weather friend that can be reliable’.

The Belt and Road Initiative by China resulting in China providing billions of dollars in loans to African countries for infrastructure projects and development has reeled in Zambia, the second largest copper producing country in Africa. Consequently, Zambia is in a position with a spiralling debt and in default of loan repayments accrued from China through this initiative. China’s measures in response to the default of loan repayments such as the seizure of the country’s key infrastructure such as the airport, the Zambian port and control over mining assets in the Copperbelt region has done little to quench the neo-colonialist agenda China has been accused of. China has been criticised and accused of being incentivised to lend money to Zambia they cannot repay, with the intention of exploiting the country for their large copper reserves. The current situation in Zambia, where China controls and dominates in economic activities makes it difficult to come to an alternative conclusion in that partnership.

The cooperation between the two countries saw a surge in the number of Chinese immigrating to Zambia for economic activities. The rise in the number of Chinese economic migrants to the Southern African country has been perceived by the locals as a takeover of the country. Even more so when most of the country’s infrastructure has been financed by China, hence, a huge political and economic influence. Furthermore, burdening Zambia with loans the country is unable to repay could arguably be viewed as leverage to relinquish some sovereignty to China. The increase in Chinese businesses and economic activities also comes with a rise in anti-Chinese sentiments. Anti-Chinese sentiments have been on the rise over the recent years which has led to violence against Chinese employers. This year for example, there was an attack on a Chinese-owned textile warehouse in Lusaka, where three Chinese were killed including the wife of the owner. This incident of violence against Chinese business owners is not an isolated case, as there have been similar incidents in the past, and threats of more in the future. For instance, a Chinese supervisor was killed in a Zambian mining town by Zambian workers in 2012 according to a BBC news report.These tensions are believed to be driven by unfair labour practices and harsh working conditions meted out to the locals.

The exploitation and discrimination of local Zambian workers by Chinese business owners have been long-standing and have led to a clash between the mayor of Lusaka and the government according to the BBC report. The numerous complaints of discrimination and exploitation levelled against Chinese companies by locals has inspired a national debate on Chinese presence and engagements in the country. The debates around the profitability of Chinese engagement at the state and local level has been raised, with the general perception being that these Chinese engagements have mostly benefited the political elites at the state level. Zooming out of Zambia and into the continent, there have been reports of several incidents of mistreatment, discrimination and exploitation of low paid local workers by Chinese employers. In Zimbabwe for example, it has been reported by The South African, an online news publication, that an activist group has accused Chinese companies of abuse of local workers and overall non-compliance to the labour laws of the country. The Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association has recently added to this criticism by questioning the ethics of Chinese employers in the Southern African country.


In the midst of the pandemic, there have been several reports across the sub-regions of the abuse of local employees by their Chinese superiors. Drawing from these incidents on the same issue, China-Africa cooperation appears to be benefitting to the political elites, whilst neglecting responsibilities and good labour practices that impact the average citizen of the country within which they operate. African governments have a role to play in ensuring the adherence of good labour practices for the benefit of their citizens. In countries where authoritarian regimes are being propped up by China’s investment, as well as in those crippled by Chinese loans such as in Zambia, better working conditions for workers may not easily be demanded. This could be attributed to the high dependency on Chinese investments which undermines efforts towards working for mutual benefits as equal partners.

Unfair Chinese labour practices in Africa have been a great source of discontentment to Africans and some experts. This phenomenon has fuelled anti-Chinese sentiments, translating into violence against the Chinese by the exploited and under-paid workers. It is evident that merely satisfying the elites at the state level is not enough for a beneficial collaboration between China and Africa, especially when anti-Chinese sentiments are on the rise. Moving forward, it would be important for Chinese and African leaders to hold employers more accountable in their work and labour practices in the countries they operate in. This will mitigate threats of, or a full-blown revolution against Chinese presence on the continent. If the collaboration between the two partners is not to be undermined at the local level due to rising tensions from bad labour practices, China’s activities need to appeal to the average citizens as much as to the political elites.

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