Tension is rising between workers’ unions and Chinese employers in Zimbabwe over alleged unfair labour practices by companies from the Asian country amid warnings that the situation could escalate to violent confrontation.
Chinese companies have been investing heavily across Zimbabwe’s economic sectors over the past five years and they now have a huge presence in the mining, construction, energy and agriculture sectors.
The Zimbabwe Investment Agency (Zida) in its 2022 annual report noted that China had become the southern African country’s biggest source of foreign direct investment as it accounted for 76.2 percent of the $3 billion projects approved between 2019 and June 2022.
China’s heavy investment in Zimbabwe has provided relief for President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration, which has been struggling to attract Western investors because of Western sanctions against the country. However, some of the projects have become a huge source of concern for local labour activists.
But unions say most Chinese employers have become notorious for labour violations such as torture, beatings, gender-based violence, low wages and a host of other labour violations.
So bad is the situation that one of the largest labour unions in Zimbabwe’s mining sector has since written to the government demanding an urgent audit of Chinese run mining operations in the country to diffuse what it described as an explosive situation.
Fed up with reports
In a letter obtained by The EastAfrican, dated June 7, 2023 and addressed to the Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Minister Paul Mavhima, the Zimbabwe Diamond and Allied Minerals Workers Union (ZDAMWU) said it was fed up with reports of physical abuse and harassment of its members by Chinese employers.
“Mine workers are kindly requesting for a national labour inspection across all mines in Zimbabwe big and small, particularly Chinese owned mines,” reads the ZIDAMWU letter.
“Mine workers have reached a position that requires your intervention before the deteriorating working conditions and environment degenerate into chaos and labour unrest.
“Mine workers are very much frustrated and agitating for action if there is no immediate solution to all the stated issues.”
Justice Chinhema, the ZDMWU General Secretary, said the relationship between local workers and their Chinese employers was toxic.
Chinhema said their research had shown that most Chinese firms imported labour from their country and that resulted in a lot of tension at most of their operations because of a clash of cultures with the mining industry being the most affected.
“What is happening is that the Chinese companies who come to invest in this country bring their own people from China who in our view are also being abused,” he said.
The abused workers then vent their anger on local people that they work with.
“The most common form of abuse is workers being forced to work long hours, workers being denied sick leave and sometimes they are verbally or physically abused.
“Workers are forced to work in unsafe environment, and some are forced to live in tin houses or cabins with no clean water.
“The workers are not provided with protective clothing and the authorities have been reluctant to deal with our grievances.”
Chinhema further said most Chinese businesses do not allow trade unions in their premises to cover up for the abuse.
In October last year, China’s embassy in Harare clashed with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) after the country’s biggest labour center issued a scathing statement against Chinese companies that were allegedly abusing their workers.
ZCTU accuses state officials
The ZCTU accused senior Zimbabwean government officials of shielding Chinese businesses that violated the country’s labour laws with impunity.
“The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions notes with concern, the continued blatant disregard of labour laws by Chinese employers across all sectors of the economy despite concerted engagements at all levels on the matter over the years,” ZCTU acting president Nicholas Mazarura said at the time.
“We have observed serious labour violations, torture, beatings, gender-based violence, underpayments and a host of other unfair labour practices one can think of have been perpetrated on locals by the Chinese.
“Workers are constantly raising grievances to the effect that their rights were habitually violated as most of them are paid less than the stipulated industrial minimum wages or salaries.”
According to the US State Department, 2022 Zimbabwe Country Report on Human Rights Practices released on March 31 this year said there were reports of abuses by management at certain enterprises and companies “owned by People’s Republic of China (PRC) parastatals and private PRC enterprises.”
It said common complaints included reports of “physical, sexual and emotional abuse of workers, unsafe working conditions, underpayment or non-payment of wages, unfair dismissals, firings without notice, failure to abide by collective bargaining agreements and failure to report health and safety incidents.”
The Chinese embassy in Harare rejected accusations that companies abuse local workers. A spokesman said some of the labour disputes are caused by cultural differences and language barriers.
It has also accused Zimbabwean civil society organisations and labour unions of being xenophobic and fronting Western interests.