Photo by Shem Oirere
Kenya's Principal Secretary for Infrastructure John Mosonik (center) with managers of China Road and Bridge Corp. at the rail project site in Mombasa.

The wife of Cameroon’s Deputy Prime Minister Amadou Ali had an unusual diplomatic task to perform on Oct. 11.

She was at the Yaounde airport bidding farewell to a group of 10 tearful Chinese workers. They had been kidnapped from a road project in mid-May by Boko Haram militants and after long months of captivity had finally been freed to go home. Ms. Ali has herself been a captive of Boko Haram. All of their releases are believed to have involved ransom payments.

In mid-May immediately after the kidnapping, the Chinese embassy said in a statement, “For companies operating in the northern part of Cameroon, in particular, they should instantly start security contingency plans,” the

The send-off for the ten released workers concluded one of the dozens of incidents of kidnapping and harassment of Chinese workers that have taken place on projects across Africa, not to mention countries such as Venezuela, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, Vietnam and Myanmar. What remains to be seen is if the attacks on Chinese workers will hamper Chinese contractors in their effort to build on their considerable share of the world construction market or if Chinese contactors, as several projects suggest, will start to do more local hiring.

One of the major challenges surfaced in early October in one section of the Kenya-Nairobi rail project being built by Chinese contractors for about $5 billion.

In October alone, there were two kidnappings and two other cases where kidnapped workers were released, including the one in Cameroon. The second case involved the release of three Chinese workers, who had been kidnapped in August from a thermal power plant being constructed by China Machinery Engineering Corp. in Silopi District of southeastern Turkey. 

The incidents throw light on not just the criminal and political aspects of kidnappings, but reveal the practices adopted by Chinese construction firms for grabbing and implementing projects. In fact, the very reasons that have made it possible for Chinese companies to win overseas deals now appears to cause problems, at least on some of the projects.

A curious Chinese practice involves transporting thousands of workers across continents at extremely high costs, and sheltering them in clusters away from the prying eyes of local workers, who are often bristling with envy and resentment.

"Chinese construction companies usually avoid dealing with local trade unions in overseas projects. This is why they often transport Chinese workers at high cost," Kan Wang, assistant professor at the state-run China Institute of Industrial Relations, told ENR.

Wage negotiations are not the only reason why Chinese companies want no dealings with trade unions in foreign countries. Local trade unions often demand participation in project management or act as information conduits for competitors, sources said.

Full Control Sought

Chinese managers need to be in full control to cut costs and meet deadlines because they win bids on the basis of thin margins. Officials of Chinese state-owned companies are accustomed to controlling trade unions in their home country, not treating them as equals, observers say.

Chinese mappings and drawings are filled with jottings in Mandarin language, which is another reason why a large Chinese staff is required on the project site. Detailed designs of different portions of a project are done in intricate ways that are intelligible only to Chinese supervisors and specialist workers.

Using foreign workers often results in communication challenges for Chinese engineers and supervisors. But importing workers from China also can cause serious problems, particularly in areas of high unemployment.  

Local youth in the area around Voi [Kenya] protested against a Chinese contractor, China Road and Bridge Construction Co., which they claim have denied them jobs on the standard gauge railway line that will pass through the area, John Mruttu, the governor of Taita Taveta County, told Reuters. The agency could not contact officials of the Chinese firm.

On Oct. 3, protesters blockaded the main highway linking the port of Mombasa to landlocked Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, which paralyzed transport of cargo by truckers for several hours.

“The protesters are angry that the Chinese contractor has imported labor, including drivers, which are jobs the locals are entitled to. They also say the few locals who have been employed are being paid poorly or sacked without reason even before construction work starts in earnest,” said Mruttu.

Some major Chinese companies have begun to review security arrangements after local police and security staff failed to check violent incidents on some of the foreign project sites. One proposal being examined involves hiring American security firms, which use specially trained guards who often are military veterans, sources said.