Chinese Companies in Africa Probed Over Alleged Abuse of Local Employees

By Charles Pensulo, Special to The Epoch Times
December 24, 2018 Updated: January 3, 2019

BLANTYRE, Malawi—Malawi’s leading human-rights organization says it will continue a probe into allegations of abuse of Malawian workers at a construction site owned by a Chinese company.

After an impromptu visit to the site two months ago, the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC)—an independent body established by an act of parliament—began an investigation into China Lilongwe Grand Holding Corp. Ltd. following local media reports of multiple cases of abuse at the site.

Harry Migochi, economics, social, and cultural director at the MHRC, said there have been claims of human-rights violations regarding workers at the construction site, including beatings carried out by the employer.

“From our investigation, we also discovered that people working at the site were not wearing protective gear,” he said. “But the mode of our investigation was to go back to the site and do a thorough investigation so that the actual victims could tell us what really happened.”

In addition to the recent visit to China Lilongwe Grand Holding, MHRC has previously carried out impromptu visits to other sites.

“For example, we also carried out an investigation at a company where Chinese are manufacturing fertilizer. We have since shared our concerns with the ministry of labor,” Mingochi said, without specifying the commission’s findings.

He did, however, say the conditions at the Chinese-owned companies operating in the country are “very poor” and “need to be improved,” and called for a review of the country’s labor laws and conditions of service.

Growing Tensions

As China tightens its grip on African countries by offering loans and constructing roads, bridges, and railways, there has been growing criticism of the ill-treatment of workers at construction sites.

In 2012, The Guardian reported about “regular beatings” and “miserable conditions” on sites where the Chinese were building a national defense college in Zimbabwe.

The NGO Human Rights Watch, in its report “You’ll Be Fired If You Refuse: Labor Abuses in Zambia’s Chinese State-owned Copper Mines,” detailed the “persistent confrontations with employees over labor abuses” in Chinese-run mines, including poor health and safety conditions.

The Malawi ministry of labor asked for more time to respond to emailed questions from The Epoch Times about the abuse allegations and what they are doing about it.

But MHRC’s Migochi said that at the time of the visit to China Lilongwe Grand Holding, they noticed that things were changing, citing a prior visit by the ministry as a probable reason.

Responding to the reports, an official from the company accused the human-rights organization and reporters of blowing the story out of proportion.

“I know that there were different things that happened here, but they were sorted out, so I don’t know why you’re interested to write this story. Things happened but they were sorted out,” said the official in a phone interview, asking to be identified only by her first name, Chimwemwe.

The official further said the story about the abuses shook the relationship between the two countries.

“Where there are people, there is likely to be misunderstandings. Maybe it could be the language, but at any construction site, there are issues. No one is 100 percent perfect, and what is needed is just to understand one another,” she said.

Migochi, however, said his organization isn’t done with the investigation and it expects to collaborate with the ministry of labor to compare notes and see the way forward on the matter.

‘Focus More on the Good Things’

According to the company’s website, China Lilongwe Grand Holding aims to create the largest business park in southeast Africa. It cites Chinese citizens as the company’s main shareholders. The president of the company, Ma Zhanjiang, established the business as part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative—Beijing’s ambitious investment initiative with countries around the world.

According to an article published by Chinese state-run media Shanxi Evening News, the Grand Business Park in Lilongwe obtained assistance from agencies in the Shanxi provincial government. It’s not clear what kind of assistance the government agencies provided. The company, however, invested 600 million yuan (about $87 million) into the park.

Malawi has a wide range of infrastructure built from either donations or loans from China, ranging from a conference center, to a national stadium, to roads.

During the signing of three major development agreements between Malawi and China, Goodall Gondwe, Malawi’s minister of finance, economic planning, and development, criticized Malawians for pointing out individual cases of abuses instead of looking at the developmental benefits.

“Malawians should focus more on the good things the Chinese are doing rather than focus on individual incidents. We are extremely happy with what the Chinese are doing to us,” Gondwe is cited by the online newspaper Nyasa Times as saying.

But Migochi said the minister’s words were “his opinion,” and that individuals have the right to complain as long as they have sufficient need to.

“I am encouraging people to complain, because that’s when we have an entry point,” he said.