Gauging the Size of the Problem

The problem of harassment of Chinese workers could be big or small depending on how one sees it.

Deborah Brautigam, professor and director of the China Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, believes the extent of harassment is small compared to the size of Chinese involvement in Africa.

“Given the large scale of Chinese overseas labor exports for construction projects—more than 345,000 working abroad at the end of 2012 (just over half in Asia)—there are surprisingly few incidents of this kind, particularly given that Chinese companies are working in some very unstable environments, like Sudan or northern Nigeria,” Brautigam told ENR. “This is in part because companies tend to protect their workers, in safe environments with fences and guards,” she said.

Chinese construction firms are often not to blame for the violent incidents. In many cases, these are related to existing political problems in project areas, or driven by the kidnappers hunger for ransom money. Chinese workers are increasingly being seen as soft targets, partly because they are visible in remote areas.

"In most cases, Chinese workers have been harassed or kidnapped in foreign countries for political reasons," says China Institute's Wang. "There has been hardly any conflict over trade union or wage related issues." For instance, China’s territorial disputes have led to anti-China riots in Vietnam in mid-2014 and caused a spate of kidnappings of Chinese in The Philippines.

Every incident of worker harassment in foreign locations is played up in the Chinese media, and the government comes under pressure to explain what its overseas missions have done about it.

The most crucial question is whether such incidents would affect the ability of Chinese construction firms to compete and continue to offer low bids to win projects deals.

The Chinese contractor building the 609-kilometer standard gauge railway line linking Kenya’s port city of Mombasa to the capital of Nairobi, said “it will give employment priority to Kenyans” when work on the project begins in earnest later this month.

China Road and Bridge said it will bring employees from China for managerial and technical jobs and employ another 30,000 locals over the three-year construction period, set to end in 2018.

“About 2,000 to 2,500 Chinese technical and managerial personnel will work on the project,” said Julius Li, a company manager in charge of corporation and liaison affairs. 
“This translates to 10% Chinese workers against 90% Kenyan employees contracted for the project.”

Kenyan firms have also been given an opportunity to supply $16 million worth of materials for the project, with the rest imported from China.
 “We will ensure transfer of technical knowhow and training programs for professional development of Kenyan employees engaged,” Li said.

The contractor said an estimated 600 Chinese workers have arrived in Kenya  and another 3,000 locals have been hired.

But a survey by the Consumer Federation of Kenya in early September showed that 76.5% of Kenyans are opposed to the proposal to bring in 5,000 Chinese workers for the railway project.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics says the construction industry grew by 5.5% in 2013 compared to 4.5% the previous year. The growth raised employment in the sector by 12.2% to 130,000 from 116,000 in 2012.