CONSUMERS battling the rage of a liquidity crunch against the backdrop of paltry salaries that mock Zimbabwe’s official $511 poverty–datum–line love the Chinese–owned shops sprouting all over downtown Harare.
BY PHILLIP CHIDAVAENZI
LOW PRICES AND CHEAP LABOUR
The shops’ major drawcard is the unbelievably low prices which allow hard–pressed consumers an opportunity for shopping: from clothing items, slip–ons and kitchen utensils to electrical gadgets and toys.
The Chinese shops rely heavily on cheap local labour. But as the employees go about their daily duties with the loyalty known only to religious fanatics, shoppers hardly see the tears behind their smiles as they provide a wonderful shopping experience, according to employees who opened up to NewsDay.
Although there have been widespread reports in the public domain on the alleged abuse of locals in Chinese mining and construction companies, the tales of those employed in retail businesses have largely gone untold.
The closure of many companies in the clothing, metal, agriculture, engineering, furniture, commerce and catering sectors has spewed out many workers onto the streets, so they turned to the Chinese sweatshops for succour.
CHINESE ‘SLAVE MASTERS’ CALL THE SHOTS
There appears to be a streak of fear in those still working for the Chinese, given their reluctance to detail their day–to–day experiences under the harsh employ of the men and women from the Far East.
Many spoke of poor remuneration, long and gruelling working hours, verbal and physical abuse as well as the threat of summary dismissal should they court their employers’ wrath.
An employee in a Chinese clothing shop who only identified himself as Jackson admitted that his working conditions were nothing short of slavery.
He bemoaned how the public gaze has been largely focused on big Chinese companies at the expense of the small shops littered across town where he said locals were suffering under the yoke of punishing labour.
“By 6:30am every day I am supposed to be at work to ensure that everything is in order, but we officially open at 7 o’clock,” he said. “Then we work until 8:30pm.
This is straining work and at the end of the month I am paid just $300 for all my sweat.”
He said he was still going to work only because he had no option and the $300 salary was better than having no income at all. He added they were not allowed to join any trade union to represent them.
“The boss clearly told us that even if we report anywhere nothing would be done to him because the Chinese are in good books with the government,” he said.
Samson Taruvinga (28) of St Mary’s in Chitungwiza quit his job at a Chinese-owned bakery in the Willowvale industrial sites because of poor working conditions two months ago.
“These people are slave masters and they use fear to intimidate workers,” said Taruvinga. “Some of the things are unbelievable. I saw a grown man being slapped for failing to account for just a dollar.”
He said it was disappointing that despite the abuses, government has continued to turn a blind eye to the complaints of abuse.
Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) secretary-general Japhet Moyo (pictured right) told NewsDay that such reports might not have been official, especially if they were made by workers who did not belong to any particular trade union.
“In this country, an employee is allowed to join a union of his trade. There may have been no action taken regarding some employees who had been abused because the complaints were not properly forwarded through a trade union,” he said.
CHINESE LABOUR CULTURE : A snap survey by NewsDay revealed that many workers have been reduced to punching bags that take in every kind of abuse and ill–treatment. The culture is adopted from the Chinese system in which workers have no rights and their value equals that of slaves.
China is run by an authoritarian government through a one-party system that prohibits independent labour unions, leaving the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) as the sole legal representative of China’s workers, according to the Human Rights Watch 2013 World Report.
Susan Matema (24), who worked for a Chinese entrepreneur for six months before calling it quits in December last year, said her former employer always made it clear that he came to Zimbabwe to make money, not friends.
“I could not continue on a salary of $4 per day while working for 26 days a month in a hostile environment where workers were constantly harassed and accused of being thieves,” she said. “He made sure that he counted the stock himself and if the money was short by even $1, it would be deducted from your salary.”
She added that the Chinese national never entertained any grievance. If an employee was unhappy, they were ordered to leave, with the “promise” that their job would be given to someone else desperate for employment.
Some employees complained they were offered short–term renewable contracts as the Chinese sought ways of evading statutory payments to bodies such as the National Social Security Authority (NSSA)
WORKERS PAY PRICE FOR THE LAX LABOUR LAWS
The challenges that locals working for Chinese have had to deal with could be blamed on the country’s labour law and policies, which do not adequately cover employees in the face of rampant abuse by employers.
Labour law expert Rodgers Matsikidze said there was need for a “protectionist policy” that involved various arms of government playing an oversight role in monitoring the operations of foreign businesses.
“What we require in our country is a protectionist policy which starts with the Immigration Department so that if an investor is coming into the country, there should have a sound human resources management system,” he said.
Most Chinese–owned businesses hardly have a local person in charge of human resources, something that Matsikidze said was problematic because most of the Chinese nationals were not well–versed with the country’s labour laws.
“Unfortunately our labour laws do not cover all these issues. There are no guidelines as to which positions should be reserved for locals and so on, so you find that in most shops, the supervisors are Chinese,” Matsikidze said.
Following Zimbabwe’s adoption of the Look East Policy after its relations with the West soured over the former’s alleged democratic deficit in the post-2000 era, Chinese nationals have continued to establish businesses in the country.
Recent indications by government that there was need to relax the labour laws to make for quick, efficient and easier dismissal of employees could make it virtually impossible to prosecute Chinese nationals that would have breached their employees’ rights.
While presenting the 2014 National Budget statement, Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa (pictured right just before presenting the 2014 budget) said the government was planning to
review labour laws.
“It is also necessary that we introduce in our labour laws flexibility in the hiring of workers, as well as alignment of wage adjustments to labour productivity,” he said.
The current Labour Relations Act makes dismissals and retrenchments slow as the parties have to go through a number of hearings before implementing decisions. In its current from, the Act provides that failure to follow laid-down procedures in dismissing an employee results in the company paying damages in lieu of instatement.
Labour analysts say the law review has the potential to poison relations with unions, but currying favours with the Chinese who have a reputation of abusing employee rights.
‘ THESE STORIES ARE JUST MYTHS’
Although many Chinese businesspeople refused to open up to NewsDay, Cheng Li, who runs a shop in downtown Harare, claimed the reports were false and meant to tarnish the good relationship between the Zimbabwean and Chinese governments.
“Our government and the government of Zimbabwe are good friends and there is no way we can abuse our Zimbabwean workers. These stories about abuses are just myths with no proof.”
He said they felt the negativity surrounding Beijing’s presence in Zimbabwe paled in comparison to its commitment to helping the country as the two nations had enjoyed cordial relations since pre-independence days.
The Chinese embassy in Harare has indicated that the negativity surrounding Beijing’s presence in the country paled in comparison to its commitment to helping Zimbabwe.
“During the past 32 years, the two countries have enjoyed ever-deepening traditional friendship, frequent personnel exchanges and fruitful co-operation in all fields, bringing tangible benefits to the two peoples,” an official from the embassy is on record saying.
“China-Zimbabwe friendship has become the precious wealth of the two peoples, and thanks to the concerted efforts of the two sides, it is keeping glowing with new vitality.”
TRADE UNIONS CONCERNED
Workers who seek increased wages and better working conditions are often penalised for organising and protesting.
ZCTU secretary-general Moyo, said Zanu PF’s over-reliance on China has led to a soft approach in dealing with violations of workers’ rights by Chinese companies.
As the country’s economy was now increasingly littered with Chinese fingerprints following Zimbabwe’s censure by its erstwhile business partners in the West at the turn of themillennium, the Asians that have brought in businesses appear to be well-cushioned by the law.
Zanu PF launched its Look East Policy in 2003 as a way of compensating for the loss of Western investment due to human rights abuses by the government.
“The issue of the Chinese has got something to do with the politics of the country and it seems it was decided somewhere else behind closed doors. There might be some clauses that make the Chinese immune to our legislation on labour and their attitude in treating workers tells it all,” said Moyo.
He, however, noted that in some instances the Chinese entrepreneurs were ignorant of the country’s labour laws while others were downright stubborn.
NewsDay understands that the issue had been raised with the Ministry of Labour, which subsequently developed cold feet and chose to ignore it.
Former Labour minister Paurina Mpariwa set up a taskforce to investigate Chinese employers who were allegedly abusing their workers two years ago, but the report — which details the abuses — was swept under the carpet.