China clashes with Zimbabwean unions over 'systematic abuse'

Thursday July 08 2021
Workers in Zimbabwe

Workers at a mine in Mazowe, Zimbabwe. PHOTO | AFP


Chinese diplomats are embroiled in a vicious war of words with Zimbabwe’s labour unions over allegations that businesspeople from the Asian country are abusing their local employees.

Over the years, China has seen its influence on the Zimbabwean economy grow with investments in mining and construction projects, but the companies are routinely accused of ill-treating their workers.

Unions say the Zimbabwean government often looks the other way when they report Chinese employers for violation of labour laws.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the largest labour centre representing private sector employees, recently torched a storm when it used social media to expose what it described as “slave-like working conditions” at a Chinese owned tile manufacturing factory on the outskirts of Harare.

ZCTU claimed Sunny Yi Feng workers were being given salaries that were below the minimum wage and were forced to stay in overcrowded accommodation where they were exposed to dangerous chemicals.

Unionists claimed some workers had even died at the factory and their deaths were concealed by the Chinese.


Series of accusations

The Chinese embassy in Harare, however, reacted angrily to the accusations and warned they might damage relations with Zimbabwe.

“Recently, some have made a series of accusations on social media against Chinese enterprises in Zimbabwe by circulating some unidentified video clips,” the embassy said in an uncharacteristically hard-hitting statement.

“All these accusations ultimately target China-Zimbabwe cooperation and China’s foreign policy towards Zimbabwe,” it added.

“Obviously, this is an organised and systematic smear campaign against China.”

The diplomatic mission insisted that the Chinese government always ensured that companies owned by its nationals complied with laws and regulations of host countries.

“China-Zimbabwe friendship and cooperation will not be affected by slander or vilification by any individual or force,” the embassy charged.

“The move to undermine the good relations between China and Zimbabwe will make us more confident and motivated to develop profound friendship and fruitful cooperation between our two countries.”

The Chamber of Chinese Enterprises in Zimbabwe (CCEZ) also weighed in with a highly charged statement that was shared by the embassy on its social media platforms.

“Our member companies’ conduct and policies are premised on the principle of respect for human rights, justice and equality for all employees,” CCEZ said.

“We operate according to the laws and regulations of Zimbabwe and with full respect for the people of Zimbabwe.

“The various projects undertaken by our member companies that contribute to the development of Zimbabwe speak for themselves.”

It added: “We strongly condemn the baseless claims and falsehoods against the Chinese government and its people.

Attacks with hidden agendas will not affect our resolve to foster good relations between our two countries.”

Japhet Moyo, the ZCTU secretary general, said their accusations against the Chinese tile maker were backed by evidence.

“Instead of spending money on public relations stunts, the company should work on these issues,” Mr Moyo said.

“The ZCTU will continue to escalate the matter even up to the international level. We cannot sit by while workers are being abused.”

Rampant abuse

Tension between Chinese employers and Zimbabwean unions reached a boiling point last year after local two workers were shot and wounded allegedly by their Chinese boss at a mine after they complained about their outstanding wages.

“The problem of ill-treatment of workers is systematic and widespread and what that shooting did was to expose the rampant abuse of workers,” the Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association said.

“Wages are often very low and in many cases are not paid on time.

“If someone tries to exercise their right as a worker and demand what is due to them, they get assaulted or shot.

“It has become a pattern and a system. We have cases where miners are abused, beaten and discriminated against by Chinese miners.

“Locals in some Chinese-owned mines often operate in dangerous, harsh and life-threatening conditions while being poorly paid.”