China’s misplaced concerns over workers in Africa

31 January 2012
All of a sudden China’s overseas workers are headline news. The official Chinese media and the Internet have been flooded with expressions of concern and outrage at the abduction of 29 Chinese road workers in Sudan.

While some bloggers are demanding commando raids to rescue the workers, the Global Times took a rather more measured approach, urging Chinese embassies to do more to protect Chinese nationals, and for individuals to be more safety conscious when working overseas.

The Global Times, and its more alarmist allies in the Chinese blogosphere, are once again perpetuating the image of Africa as a dark and dangerous place, and that Chinese workers, who are only there to help raise those poor Africans out of poverty, need to be better protected.

While not wanting to downplay the risk of violent crime in many African countries, I would just point out that most Chinese workers are already extremely well protected, living often in vast walled compounds cut off as far as possible from the local community. Workers from large state-owned consortiums usually have high salaries, hardship allowances, Chinese television, video calls to their families back home, and good quality Chinese food cooked for them onsite.

Compare this to a Chinese factory worker in Japan or a construction worker in Singapore, the two biggest international markets for Chinese labour. These workers are typically recruited through agencies in China, known as placement companies that charge exorbitant fees upfront just to arrange the job placement. Once onsite they have to work long hours for low pay in frequently hazardous conditions. Many have to endure abuse, discrimination and violations of their rights but very few can obtain legal redress. Their movements are tightly controlled by their boss, who can terminate their employment and send them back to China at any time and without any justification.

Nearly all of the workers interviewed for CLB’s two research reports on Chinese workers in Singapore and Japan said they often felt alone with no one to turn to when their rights were violated by their boss. The Chinese embassy and consulates, in particular, were viewed as next to useless. Workers were far more likely to seek help from non-governmental organizations in Singapore or Japanese trade unions than any Chinese organization. If they tried to sue the placement company that arranged their employment, they often came up against a brick wall of entrenched local interests and could even be counter-sued by the company for breach of contract.

There is much the Chinese government can do to improve the lot of the country’s overseas workers, and none of these measures involves any kind of armed protection. CLB’s research reports contain a long list of recommendations for the Chinese government including:

  • Signing and ratifying the three major international conventions on migrant labour.
  • Drafting a new law specifically related to overseas labour to clarify the role of placement companies, the obligations of government departments and the mechanisms for resolving disputes.
  • Establishing a new organization specifically tasked with monitoring and supervising China’s rapidly expanding and increasingly chaotic labour export market.
  • Ordering embassies and consulates in countries with large numbers of migrant workers to be much more proactive in helping resolve disputes between Chinese workers and their employer.
  • Establishing specialist trade union departments in regions sending large numbers of workers overseas to ensure their rights are better protected throughout the process of recruitment, employment and dispute resolution.

If the government is serious about protecting its overseas workers, it should start by addressing the problems created at home and then seek to establish more effective channels of communication with the countries that need China’s workers.

For more information please see:
Throwaway Labour: The exploitation of Chinese “trainees” in Japan
Hired on Sufferance: China’s migrant workers in Singapore
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