Saturday, 6 October 2018

Chinese Companies And The Abuse Of Zambian Workers

Workers cutting timber at Zhengbang Deheng factory
without protective clothing -Pictures by Melody Mupeta
By Paul Shalala in Kalulushi

At the time when the talk in the country is on the debt the Zambian government owes China, something more serious about the Chinese isn’t being talked about.

The hundreds of Chinese companies operating in the country are paying their workers meager salaries and conditions of service are very worrying.

On top of that, the workers who are based in factories are not provided with safety attires.

This is an area which is rarely in the news: the bad side of Chinese investment in Zambia.

This week, I accompanied Kalulushi District Commissioner Kenny Siachisumo and Kalulushi Mayor Rashida Mulenga who stormed Zhengbang Deheng Investment, a Chinese furniture company which keeps its 70 Zambian workers in slave like conditions.

The visit caught the Chinese owners by surprise.

The factory, which is located along Sabina road, is barricaded by high walls and people outside cannot see the atrocities happening inside.

What we found was shocking, workers handling raw timber with bare hands.

They wore torn shorts, no safety boots or overalls.

"We were given our last safety gear last year, its over a year now," said one of the male workers. 

At the far end of the factory is a machine which mixes chemicals which they later apply on the planks.

The chemical whose name is not know, chocks the workers daily 

"I have worked here for three years and this chemical chocks us daily. Even tears come out, its too strong," said one of the female workers.

Asked if they are given milk to try and neutralise the chemical, the lady said the Chinese supervisors do not respond to requests for milk and advise them to buy their own from their meagre salaries.

In terms of sanitation, the place is not in good condition.

The 70 Zambian workers share pit latrines which are filthy.

They are not stocked with tissue or any chemical to distill them.

"According to the Public Health Act, this situation warrants the closure of your company. Only 12 people are allowed to share a single toilet, but what you have here is wrong," warned Christopher Mtonga, the Chief Health Inspector from the Kalulushi Municipal Council.

Mr Mtonga went further to give the company 21 days to build a new ablution block which must have a provision for changing rooms where workers can change from work suits to normal clothes after working.

"But for the safety gear, am only giving you 24 hours to buy and give all your workers. We shall come back to check and if you do not do so, we shall close this company," said Mr Mtonga.

But the Zhengbang Deheng Investments Manager Wei Le hesitated to commit to building an ablution block in 21 days.

She threatened that if the Council insists on a new ablution block, she may close the company.

And a check at the toilets used by the six Chinese supervisors revealed flushable toilets with clean running water which is in contrast with the filthy pit latrines for the 70 workers.

The toilets are fitted with lights, as opposed to the pit latrines which are darkened due to lack of lights.

In terms of salaries, workers at the company make K25 ($2.5) per day and they get as low as K438 ($43) as salary per month.

According to a pay sheet which the manager availed to the inspectors, most workers are paid between K400 and K700 per month.

"The problem you have here is that you have no safety officer and a human resource officer. Urgently employ an HR officer, a Zambian who should be stationed here to resolve all these issues," said Kalulushi District Commissionner Kenny Siachisumo. 

And Kalulushi Mayor Rashida Mulenga added that the recruitment of a safety officer and human resource officer must be prioritised.
Kalulushi Mayor Rashida Mulenga talking to one of the
female workers at Zhengbang Deheng factory

But despite all these challenges, Zhengbang Deheng Investment has all updated permits from the Zambia Environmental Management Agency, the Kalulushi Municipal Council and elsewhere.

At the factory, the Chinese supervisors keep eight dogs.

The dogs bark at every person entering the factory and it is not known whether the dogs are pets or they are kept for food since the Asians include them on the menu.

Zhengdang Deheng Investments is not the only Chinese company where Zambian workers are abused.

Two weeks ago, a 42 year old Chinese national shot a female employee in a shop managed by the Chinese in Kitwe's Chimwemwe Township.

Gaoen Ming appeared in the Kitwe Magistrates Court on Monday and pleaded not guilty to unlawful wounding 17 year old Rhoda Mumba.

The case has been adjourned to next week Monday when trial will commence.

The shooting led to riots in Chimwemwe Township after rumours went round alleging that the victim had died.

This incident prompted authorities in the mining town to have a consultative meeting with the Chinese community over their business practices.

The meeting resolved that all Chinese retail shops in townships must be closed immediately and be moved to the Central business district.

"This move is aimed at ensuring that Zambians who run small shops are not disadvantaged. The Chinese are investors, they shouldn't be competing with our people in the compounds," said Kitwe Mayor Christopher Kangombe after the meeting.

And in the eastern Zambian town of Chipata, another Chinese national who owns a restaurant was arrested on Wednesday for shooting one of his worker.

Police are yet to avail him in court to answer for his actions.

These are just a few cases of the many cases of abuse of workers by Chinese nationals in Zambia.

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