Free trade and globalization are sure creating some innovative new forms of freedom around the world. During his recent visit to Zambia, Chinese president Hu Jintao declared that the new relationship between Zambia and China represented "a new type of strategic partnership" in Africa. "China is happy to have Zambia as a good friend, good partner and good brother" he told African officials.
China has demonstrated its commitment to this new strategic partnership by investing billions of dollars in aid to Africa, building roads, hospitals, and stadiums across the continent.
Surprising to some, Hu Jintao was greeted in Zambia not by adoring crowds but by protesting miners and laid-off textile workers. Why was the Chinese president was met with jeers not cheers?
caA month before Hu Jintao arrived, the Chinese run Zambia China Mulunguushi Textile factory—which employed more than 1000 people—
shut down production, strangled by a new wave of Chinese interest across Africa that some critics say amounts to little more than another round of foreign plunder, as Beijing extracts minerals and other natural resources at knock-down prices while battering the continent's economies with a flood of subsidized goods and surplus labour.
Hostility is such in some quarters that the Chinese president…cancelled plans to launch a $200m smelter at a Chinese-owned Zambian copper mine at the weekend because of miners' anger at working conditions. He also faced protests from the sacked Mulungushi factory workers.
Although largely unreported in the US and Europe, these protests reveal the growing resentment over the use of imported Chinese labor in Africa, a continent ravaged by poverty and unemployment. Increasingly, low-cost Chinese immigrants are shipped to work on large-scale construction project, textile mills, and mines throughout Africa. While the scale and scope of this emerging trend is still unknown, economists calculate the there are tens of thousands in Zambia alone. According to a recent article in McClatchy Newspapers, "Hundreds of Chinese firms now operate in Africa, some of them bringing their own low-cost Chinese workers, a source of irritation in nations where joblessness is high.
The importation of Chinese immigrant labor has moved to center-stage in Zambian politics. In last year’s presidential elections the Patriotic Front opposition party ran in part on a platform calling for Chinese traders and laborers to be forcibly removed from the country.
According to Guy Scott, a former agriculture minister and now the Patriotic Front leader in parliament,
It's hard to know how they all got here…There's a lot of Chinese here doing construction. Zambians can do that. The Chinese building firms are undercutting the local firms…Our textile factories can't compete with cheap Chinese imports subsidized by a foreign government. People are saying: 'We've had bad people before. The whites were bad, the Indians were worse but the Chinese are worst of all.'"
During the election Patriotic Front leaders were accused of racism by the government. Beijing warned that if the opposition won it would pull out of construction projects. According to the Guardian: "The PF lost but it came out ahead in the cities, where the anti-Chinese message played well."
Dipak Patel, Zambia's Trade and Industry Minister, argues the government was wrong to ignore the growing resentment.
[D]isplacing local people and causing a lot of friction. You have Chinese laborers here moving wheelbarrows. That's not the kind of investment we need. I understand they have 1.2 billion people but they don't have to send them to Africa. This needs to be dealt with because you'll end up with a situation with what happened in Uganda with the Indians...The government needs to be very clear about what kind of investment it wants. If it's just shipping out resources and shipping in cheap goods and people that's not to our benefit. We in Zambia need to be very careful of this new scramble for Africa. What's happening is that the Chinese are very aggressive. They have a strategic plan."
Globalization is not just about the movement of capital and goods across borders. As we know well in the US, it is also about the mass migration of human beings in search of employment. What appears to be relatively new is this large-scale export of workers from one developing country to another.
Sectors of the Chinese government and their corporate allies are hard at work perfecting a massive human export industry to countries like Zambia. While it might seem highly inefficient to ship hundreds of thousands of workers from China to work on large scale construction projects in various regions of Africa, corporations calculate numerous benefits, including: exemption of immigrant labor from local labor and wage rules; and a highly docile workforce that can easily fired or shipped home for trade union or other activities.
As Lui Ping, general manager in Lusaka for China's largest construction company in Zambia which has been building schools and hospitals, admitted to the Guardian, he now prefers the imported labor.
Chinese people can stand very hard work. This is a cultural difference. Chinese people work until they finish and then rest. Here [African workers] are like the British, they work according to a plan. They have tea breaks and a lot of days off. For our construction company that means it costs a lot more.
This isn’t just a problem between China and Zambia—this is the new face of the global race to the bottom. Last year GLS reported on the mass importation of Bangladeshi workers by Malaysian-owned Ramatex Textile Factory to work in the Namibia Export Processing Zone (Blog Link)—which has emerged as the poster child for the race to the bottom in Africa. In 2002 Ramatex opened a facility in Namibia with investments from the Namibian government and promised to hire 8,000 workers. Amazingly, rather than hire all Namibian workers Ramtex imported about 25% of the workers from Asia—recruited mostly in Bangladesh by global temp agencies. The migrants were kept segregated from the Namibian workers and worked under different rules; some fell into debt bondage because their low wages made it almost impossible to pay off travel expenses fronted by the company; and they had their passports confiscated. When 400 Bangladeshi workers protested they were immediately fired and deported.
The Namibian workers that Rametex did hire were mostly single women who had passed a pregnancy test. Adding insult to injury, the women had to pay for the pregnancy test themselves. Workers were also cheated out of wages, overtime was forced, and workers were fired unfairly. In response, Rametex workers went on strike. They were beaten, intimidated and fired. But since China is an attractive lower wage alternative, when Ramtex was finally forced to recognize a union it began moving its plants to China.
Globalization is no longer about jobs moving from the US and EU to the developing world. Ask African workers and they’ll tell you it’s about jobs moving from one poor country to another.