Monday, January 30, 2012

Africa's New AU Building: How Many Chinese Workers?

A couple of days ago, Yoon Jung Park at Howard University forwarded a very thoughtful article by Howard University grad Chika Ezeanya, reacting to the just-opened $200 million African Union headquarters building in Addis Ababa, a "gift" from the dragon. Her mixture of frustration and disgust at the symbolism of the African Union accepting the donation of this building was almost tangible and very nicely phrased.

But one thing about her article caught my eye: the statement that 90% of the labor on the building was Chinese.

I was in Ethiopia in February and November, and both times, it was clear to me that there were a lot of Ethiopian workers on the site. Other construction projects I visited overwhelmingly conformed to the usual pattern of Chinese managers and Ethiopian workers. But if this figure was firm, I wanted to add it to my collection of anecdotes-into-data on Chinese workers in Africa.

So I asked Chika about her source. She had heard the figure on the radio, but she directed me to two other news reports.

One, from The Global Post, said "Construction began three years ago by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation, using building materials largely brought from China, and a mix of Chinese managers and Ethiopian laborers." That's what I would have expected.

The other, from Voice of America, said the exact opposite: "It was built by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation, largely with Chinese labor." (This article also made the comment that "Industry experts say 70 percent of the continent's oil exports go to China." Ahem. The real figure is closer to 13% of African oil going to China (2009), compared with the US and Europe, each about 33%.) This put a twinge of doubt into my mind about the VOA author's credibility.

Agence France Presse said "Construction began in January 2009 and involved 1,200 Chinese and Ethiopian workers." No break down.

An Al Jazeera story that said it was "all" Chinese labor. (hat tip to Michael Lee for that one).

So, next step. What do Chinese sources say? Tang Xiaoyang did a quick search for me, and found two articles in the Chinese press. A Xinhua story of July 2010 said that there were "nearly 200 Ethiopians and over 200 Chinese" in July 2010, and another report in December 2011 said that 900 workers were hired at the peak, and that "the Chinese trained Ethiopian construction workers in a 1:1 ratio (一比一)."

Back to Michael Lee, who unearthed a China Daily story, which includes an interview with Zeng Huacheng, the Chinese project manager. Zeng said at the peak there were 1500 workers, normally they had around 1100, and that it was 1/2 Chinese and 1/2 Ethiopian. You'll see a lot of each on the video.

Why are there more Chinese working here than the norm I've seen, of about 20 Chinese to 80 Africans, on average? I imagine it has something to do with the political importance of the project, and the fact that it was financed as a grant, not a loan. The Chinese wanted to be sure it was done on time, and that it reflected a high standard of quality. And as it was financed by the Chinese as a donation, the Ethiopians probably waived their normally strict work permit requirements. Finally, as an aid project, it has to reflect "mutual benefit". Using Chinese materials and labor (half) provides some benefit to China ... not to mention the longer benefit of having the AU members meet in a stunning modern building donated by Beijing.


Godfree Roberts said...

It's not uncommon for skilled workers to be imported to work on buildings in developed countries, usually natives from the countries which manufacture subassemblies which require experience (and the ability to read the native language instructions and directions stencilled on the hardware).

This has been done, with union approval, even in New York.

Given the one-off, high tech nature of the new HQ building and the need for both experience and language familiarity--not to mention the deadline--the ratio looks pretty generous.

Anonymous said...

An intimate and clearer picture of the China-Africa relationship in observational documentary. Filmed in Zambia and China, following a Chinese road construction firm, a Chinese farmer, Zambian minister(s), Zambian workers.

Jennifer said...

This is an interesting issue to consider. Given the conflicting reports perhaps the perception of what is happening on Chinese projects is different than the reality. Perception can be a powerful force, sometimes more powerful than truth.
I believe that many times the issue with Chinese development in Africa is less that the Chinese companies employ less local workers than bring their own labor force, but more that the types of positioned offered to the local population are less desirable (do not require advanced skills or do not provide training for advanced skills) than the types of positions reserved for Chinese labor employment.

Anonymous said...

Kwame Nkrumah...

Of course, you can zoom in on one detail (where nobody else in this context focuses on) but it is the larger picture that is important.
Half a century ago, the OAU was established in the "Africa Hall" in Addis Ababa, in the presence of Kwame Nkrumah …
The building is still an architectural milestone and was ordered by the Ethiopian Government at a cost of 6 million USD ( 2/3rd was paid by the Ethiopian Government and 1/3rd by Haile Selassie himself)…

This time Nkrumah is again present, in bronze and just as the whole building "a gift" from China …
Or the ultimate illustration of the downturn of African nationalism …

But yes, I'm a Westerner, and per definition a part of the great Western China bashing Orchestra …
Hence a reaction and counter-reaction from Africa ….

Dragon Sourcing said...

20 Chines and 80 Africans, I think that is the sign that worker from china are getting alert to making their value in the world!

Dragon Sourcing

Xiao Yuhua said...

I was in Addis in September-December 2009, November 2010 and now for the year 2012. I have been to the AU conference center when it was under-construction and when it is now completed and used for AU summit. Every time I went there I saw more Ethiopians than Chinese. I think there are just so many people who are just so biased against Chinese walking and working in Addis. The Chinese look mundane, not like well-dressed "noble" outsiders, hence they are seen as cheap Chinese labor or even prisoners, like they are not human. I am a visiting scholar at AAU, trying to dress and look better when I am walking in Addis, then many expatriates ask me, usually with a provocative tone, "what business are you in?", suspecting I am making money here in Addis. While on the contrary, I am dealing with the most exhausting process of setting down with a US$ 600/month grant from China which will only be given me after I finish my one year term here in Addis. Like so many ordinary Chinese workers, life away from home has been so difficult for us, why are you still pointing your fingers at us? I pity with those Chinese workers who are working here for the sake of their families (or possibly their country's reputation) back home.

Deborah Brautigam said...

Thanks for adding your personal experience, Xiao Yuhua. Why do you only get the grant after you've been there for a term? At least they could give it to you at the end of each month.

Xiao Yuhua said...

Bureaucracies and convenience for them but inconvenience for me :-) I find people are still ensnared by the "West", "China" discourse and seem to ignore the agency of Africa itself. Ultimately it would be for Africans to regulate outsiders.Isn't every outsider able to do the same thing within the same legal environment?

Chimaoge1 said...

I know this Chika Ezeanya (though not personally) as a fellow Nigerian. The funny thing about many of our extremely westernized African elite intellectual class how they readily buy-in to western media propaganda.

The irony-- of course --is that the same Chika Ezeanya would be full of praises if Britain or United States had built that AU building and given it to the African leaders. She is angry because the building was donated by "undemocratic" China. Simple and short.

All the talk about which percentage of workers were local Ethiopians and which percentage was Chinese is not really the issue for people like Ms Ezeanya. People who determined to bash China will never allow the facts get in the way of their "Yellow Peril" narrative.

Deborah Brautigam said...

@chimaoge1 -- What I read, in part, in Chika's comments was a kind of despair that after so many years of independence, Africans were not themselves "together" enough to finance and build the swanky new headquarters of the AU by themselves. Of course some of the other elements you mention were present, but I bet Chika wouldn't have been as pleased as you think if the headquarters had been donated by "the West". But maybe I'm wrong?

Anonymous said...

I thought my personal experiences might be relevant to shed some more light on the labor issues in Africa.

My parents, now retired, privately owned a small construction company in Africa that employed a team of about 10 Chinese skilled workers as middle management and foremen. This team remained behind after finishing their contracts from a larger Chinese company and wished to earn more money before returning to China. Work onsite was carried out by our permanent African staff, mostly semi-skilled such as drivers, foremen and bricklayers. But mostly temporary locals were employed for manual work- whose surrounding villages were usually grateful for the opportunity for employment- local money lenders and vendors would often be found hanging around during salary time haranguing creditors once they were paid.

The temporary employment basis was also a strategic ploy for the company because of planting or harvesting season that often drew the locals away back to their allotments that they had to defend, leaving building sites seasonally under-staffed. Heavy building machinery/large inventory is not always the best option to use in building in Africa- maintenance issues, logistics delays caused by govt. bureaucracy and infrastructure, taxation for vehicles, skilled-staff poaching by many rival companies, etc. It makes better business sense for the company since the contract, from one to the next, determines the size of the staff required. Hence, localizing the majority of workers is the most pragmatic and economic sound manner of conducting business, as well as the added benefit of reducing interracial hostilities.

Much interracial consternation were inevitably caused by ignorance of local ways by Chinese staff (stereotypes of Africans as lazy and dull) and local mis-perceptions of the Chinese (as cannibals/violent kung-fu warriors in this instance!). As long-term expats in Africa, my parents often found themselves educating the Chinese staff in local customs to acclimatize them to the pace and manners of local sensibilities.

Finally, I wish to add that most building materials were also eventually locally sourced, such as cement, bricks, glass, timber, electrical sockets/units. It was later determined that use of local materials made better sense despite cheaper costs from Chinese imports due to concerns of long-term maintenance and conforming to local building standards.


Deborah Brautigam said...

@KF, thank you for this lucid, helpful, personal reflection. Let me know if you would ever like to expand on this for a guest blog post.

Anonymous said...

As an Ethiopian, I completely disagree with Xiaho Yuhua assessment of Ethiopians attitude towards Chinese workers. Chinese workers and China in general are seein in a very positive light among Ethiopians. Ethiopians were never afraid and suspicus of foreigners, especially not Chinese citizens. Ethiopia's unique history and experience in regards to its relationship with outside forces need to be considered and out in context to explain why the country is among the most welcoming nation to outsiders. Mr Yuhua failed to realize that all of these Chinese fear mongering articles are usually written by outsiders, mainly those with European and US origin. Their motivation clearly seem to have been lost on him and for that I can only hope he'll soon be able to open his eyes and see the bigger picture instead of falling for the same destructive forces. Enjoy your stay in Addis and good luck!

Chimaoge1 said...

@Deborah—I think people are being unnecessarily sensitive about this new AU building. To the best of my knowledge, the African leaders never went “cap-in-hand” to China to beg for that AU building to be erected in Addis Ababa. Correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that the Chinese government made an unsolicited offer to erect the AU building as a gift and symbol of friendship and African leaders accepted that offer. In my own reckoning, the AU building is a gift from the Chinese government to the African Union in much the same way that the iconic Statue of Liberty in New York was a gift from the French to the United States of America. I do not see what the brouhaha is all about.

I am not worried by what the Western corporate media commentators have to say about China-Africa relations because I know they are just jealous of China's rising profile in the world and fearful about the perceived decline in Western influence and dominance around the world. What worries and disappoints me is when I see some supposedly intelligent Africans talking like children after listening to what the heavily biased western media outlets have to say about Sino-African relations. One supposedly intelligent African once told me that African countries should be wary of doing business with China because it was “undemocratic”. Another “intelligent African” parroted the western media propagandist line that Chinese investments in Africa was a form of “neo-colonialism” and that “China did not love Africans”. My response always is— who cares if the Chinese love us or not?? Does business transactions have anything to do with “love”??

China's involvement in Africa has been very good. First, it has changed the perception fostered by the Western media that Africa was a large monolithic “hell-hole” of a country not worth investing hard-earned money in. Many other countries (e.g. Brazil, Turkey, India, South Korea, etc) are now coming to Africa for business opportunities because China has opened the way. Local entrepreneurs who run some of the automobile/motorbike spare parts factories in the small industrial clusters of Eastern Nigeria are benefiting from the ability to buy cheap machinery from China and forge new technical partnerships. This was something that was difficult to achieve in the past when the Western world held sway over our continent. Back in the old days, you could prepare the best business proposal for a group of western investors and then see it fall apart once you reveal that the location for the investment is in the “large country of AFRICA”. In those days, it didn't matter to these Western investors whether you were in war-torn Liberia or in peaceful Ghana. What mattered was that you were living in “AFRICAAH—Land of the doomed.”

Even if China didn't do much infrastructure work in Africa in exchange for natural resources, I will still be happy that Chinese involvement in our continent has forced the rest of world to understand that many African nations are open for business and that high returns on investments are possible in the continent.

Anonymous said...

@Deborah Brautigam
I would be happy to contribute a "guest post", but I would not know where to begin and end. There are so many complexities and contexts that would make a very long essay. The picture that I painted is actually a very simplistic one since I deliberately omitted much of the contexts- geopolitics, internal politics, aid packages (competition between rival nations), private entrepreneurs vs. NGOs/government sponsorship, globalization of labor (Chinese companies are beginning to outsource labor because of anti-dumping regulations and export tariffs), willingness to work in harsh environments, etc. while I'm happy to enlighten more people about Africa, I am reluctant to implicate my family too much and subject them to finger-pointing "western liberals". How would you advise me to frame the "guest post" correctly to provide enough relevant information but not reveal too much of my parents business acumen?

ps. In your speeches, You often mention "要先富,先修路" (yao xian fu, xian xiu lu), are you also aware that the practice of building roads is also a cultural difference in concepts of charity? Buddhist concepts of charity to strangers is to 造橋修路 (build bridges, fix roads) to aid them on a smooth and safe journey. The Japanese are also quite active in building bridges and roads, not only in China, but all over Africa too. In comparison, the Romans built roads for different purposes.

(my choice of Chinese characters betrays where I'm from :))

Frederic Dahlmann said...

The issue is the cost / productivity factor. If Western labour would be cheaper than African labour Western companies would also try to employ as many Western workers as possible. 100 years ago Westerners imported in great numbers Indian and Chinese labour into Africa to work on railways and in mines.
As to the symbolism that the AU headquarters should be a gift from a foreign power is another matter.

Anonymous said...

Kagame said referring to the fact that the African States cannot pay their own headquarters.
Equally pathetic are the results of their first meeting in this building.
And there's nothing symbolic about that; a free lunch does not exist, not in the investment world, nor in politics.
Don't forget that China Inc. was at the same moment in Libya where it doesn’t want to work further to finish 100,000 residential units they must deliver, as long as they are not paid for it. Money that Libya has not as long as all its funds are not released internationally .
Or also on the moment that Sinopec Unipec finds it appropriate, in a game of financial brinkmanship with Iran, to reduce by half its oil imports in the hope to enforce dumping prices for their renewed long-term contracts on Iran.
This way India has become the largest Iranian oil importer and China is losing big on the more expensive oil which it was obliged to purchase worldwide since 3 months. But they hope to gain really big on the new long term contracts, where the ultime loser will be Iran who is already under international sanctions…
Some other gifts of the dragon, for sure?

Anonymous said...

Kagame said referring to the fact that the African States cannot pay their own headquarters.
Equally pathetic are the results of their first meeting in this building.
And there's nothing symbolic about that; a free lunch does not exist, not in the investment world, nor in politics.
Don't forget that China Inc. was at the same moment in Libya where it doesn’t want to work further to finish 100,000 residential units they must deliver, as long as they are not paid for it. Money that Libya has not as long as all its funds are not released internationally .
Or also on the moment that Sinopec/Unipec finds it appropriate, in a game of financial brinkmanship with Iran, to reduce by half its oil imports in the hope to enforce dumping prices for their renewed long-term contracts on Iran.
This way India has become the largest Iranian oil importer and China is losing big on the more expensive oil which it was obliged to purchase worldwide since 3 months. But they hope to gain really big on the new long term contracts, where the ultime loser will be Iran who is already under international sanctions…
Some other gifts of the dragon, for sure?

Anonymous said...

Nice building. It shows, that it is better to do Business with the Chinese, Than the Europeans or the Indians. From Europe and the Indians all we get is corruption and Murdering of African leaders, Gaddi being the latest.

We have along trading history, with the Chinese over 5000 years or more of trading.

Don't let Indians into any African Government, the level of Corruption will take on new heights. I am living in India right now. so i am speaking with experience of Indian corruption. ask the Kenyans about Kamlesh and the 650 Million he stole and brought back to India. Also if an Africa child is born in India, they wont give him/her citizenship or passport of that Country. Nor will he/she be-able to work for the government, even though they where born in India. i believe we should treat people the way the treat us.

Just a shame, that with all that money in Africa, it could not HAVE being funded by African money?. Come you mighty people wake up, take your stance and rise again.

Have a African Day


Anonymous said...

Why all this?

Everything jumps up to politics. When you comment on a subject, it is not because you are smart because you don't know. The purpose of the China mission is directed by mighty God to show you the difference. If you don't understand this, please pray for good motive instead of judging.

Unknown said...

i had worked in africa for a few projects (telecoms) and met some chinese workers from china there. one of reasons that chinese companies brought own workers is to make sure they can meet deadlines for the projects. one thing people don't realize is the differences between working cultures.

chinese workers (those working state-run companies) working in africa are in semi-military fashion; they live, eat together in camps; work together during the work days. those camps will move along to different locations according to the changes of working sites. even at off-days, they go out together (companies provide transportation, usually). of course they could get out by their own but almost no one does that because of language barrier, the problems of local transportation, etc. during the period of annual chinese new year, those chinese companies would hire charter planes and fly those workers back to china for 2 or 4 weeks vacations.

local workers are different. african workers usually don't live in camps, they like to enjoy their lives when they can, after hard working days. when they are confined in camps due to the necessity of projects, they don't like it in general and will try to find the ways back to cities to relax or together with families/friends. sometimes, with little over excitements, they might not report back to work on time or even missing for few days.

chinese workers form a hard core working force in such environment. basically there would be always reliable working force there no matter what, to guarantee the deadlines.

those chinese workers working in foreign projects are all skilled labor except those cooks. those are considered elite workers in china.

Anonymous said...

@Annonymous, never mind where you are from, but certainly you are not from Africa(or if you you are I would assign you to one of those African countries that are not dark skinned and do not want to be identified as Africans)
From my experience in the early 80's most of the Chinese whom I have interacted with have such a pathetic view of Africans( apart from the ones I have met abroad in school)When did the rest of the lighter skinned world start to genuinely like Africa if not to say "look at me I am saving the lost,unintelligent and lazy peoples"? And who are you to enlighten the world about Africa? The point is clear, Africa is very diverse in behavior and culture and not only Ethiopia is welcoming to foreigners...the rest of Africa is and that who we are as a people.

Chinese companies doing infrastructure projects in Africa have a choice to employ non-seasonal farmers to work on their costruction projects. Africans in those places where the construction work is happening also need a living wage and work opportunities. It is not true that Africans are lazy, and do not finsh projects on time. We have our own culture on perserverance that says rushing is not getting there. Hopefully that AU structure is not going to collapse on people during a meeting like most of the Chinese construction roads and stadiums have started to collapse all over Africa. If exist he would have not made humans look at each otherf in terms of the color of their skin.
It is just sad and irks me that African leaders have now shown the world that they are the hapless of this earth, they are not men enough and have no backbone to allow another country to build such a symbolic building for you with all the resources Africa has it is such a shame.
You cannot separate politics from development they go hand in hand and don't spill your barrage on Rahim it is just true. When did the ligher skinned and straight haired world really start to like Africa except for show?

opensourceguinea said...

In big projects by China Road and Bridge or China State Construction in Equatorial Guinea its over 90% at least, with the other 10% of workers usually from Mali or Cameroon!

Deborah Brautigam said...

Thanks Enrique. I'm not surprised to see this. In 2008 there were, officially, 3782 Chinese working in Equatorial Guinea. This was the fourth highest number in Africa, with only Algeria, Sudan, and Angola higher. It reflects two things: the large number of projects financed by oil-rich Equatorial Guinea itself, the probability that as an oil-exporter, EG has Dutch Disease and therefore high local labor costs (like Algeria, Sudan, and Angola), and therefore the Chinese got permission to bring in their own workers, to reduce the costs. Equatorial Guinea is also a small country with only 700,000 people, and poorly educated workers. This would suggest that sourcing skilled construction labor locally would be challenging.

Eric said...

Thanks your share. Chinese people is so large, 1.2 billion people, they could be everwhere. In my opinion, it's a good trend that the communication between different countries is becoming more and more common. It's a opportunity for Africa, with Chinese people and their technology, Africa will develop faster. The key is how can Africans seize the opportunity.

maestro_fabian said...

The AU building was a gift to Africa as a symbol of good relations between China and Africa. We receive gifts from friends during celebrations not because we are poor. We receive flowers, not because we are bees. Kenya donated $1m to Japan when Japan was hit by earthquake. Japan accepted the gift. It is rude to reject a gift. Africa was right to accept the Chinese donation.

Unknown said...

Why does the AU deserve a new building? What have the AU done in Africa? The AU is a teeth less and useless organization, that has not done anything to improve Africa. That 200.000000 would have been better spend on building some high tech educational institutions around Africa. AU is just for corrupt, selfish Africa leaders to hangout and come up with nothing to benefit the continent. I would like to personally see the list of accomplishments by the so called African Unity. African countries are not even united. What's the use of the AU? The AU need to been dissolved and a new organization be formed to work in the interest of the people of Africa.