Sunday, February 10, 2013

Reflection of a Chinese Investor in Africa: Guest Post

This guest post by KF is reproduced with permission from the Comments section of my blog post, Nigerians Protest Conditions at Chinese Construction Project. I welcome other guest posts, particularly from Africans and Chinese with experience in the field.
As Prof. Brautigam noted, there is a huge cultural conflict in terms of work/business ethics and expectations towards labour. However, in my experience, after many periods of labour disputes, the companies acclimatise themselves to the locales in which they operate over time.

My parents (retired) had no concept of a holiday and often wondered why businesses closed on Saturdays and Sundays. Understanding they had come to a foreign country to invest, it was natural to them to work all the time. My father (the Bwana) himself would often join in the labour to demonstrate the task or to modify the task to enhance efficiency or complete a more complex task- innovation to African contexts. Even I (still in high school) was drafted into a foreman capacity, secretary, and sales office when the occasion required (all unpaid, of course), while all my expat classmates holidayed in UK or South Africa at their parents' multinational employers' expense.
At my parents' factory, we used to operate 24hrs (using night shifts) to maximise output during the high season. However, this was more dangerous to the night staff who would often sneak off to sleep and leave machines undermanned and under-supervised. The output and quality suffered as well as more stock being unaccounted for. In the end, the night shift was scrapped because the cons outweighed the pros, despite customers being more satisfied with their orders completed earlier.

Between labour disputes and strikes over decades, the working hour cycle began to resemble more of "western standards" through a process of negotiation and a gradual acceptance of the "day of rest" (Christian concept of Sunday) as beneficial to the staff and to themselves. Later when the company grew, we had to teach the Chinese middle management staff and foremen to limit their expectations of the African workers in terms of skills/efficiency and to give clear instruction first before performing the task at had, breaking down complex tasks. Often, it was MISCOMMUNICATION that was at fault. The Chinese staff found the Africans hard to work with, but my parents found it easy as long as the task was made clear and simple with attainable goals. Management staff required a shift in management style and execution for productivity. The Chinese staff would also be instructed explicitly NOT to cut corners so not to hurt the company's reputation that was built up over decades, even if their intentions were to help the company cut costs. At fault was also management techniques and cultural misunderstandings of "treating them well".

The African workers' complaints often arise also when there is a NEED OF A WAGE INCREASE (usually nationwide due to inflation, etc.) and much talk often distracts from the core issue of workers' wages to reflect current living costs. When compensated adequately for their labours, carpenters are quite willing to lay bricks or weld steel to learn more skills that can be useful much later at the company's cost when they later leave for greener pastures.

For example, our truck driver, functions as a mechanic, welder, supervisor (and made quite a bit extra on the side ferrying passengers from the rural areas to the city). When he first came onto the job (through his uncle as the original truck driver), he was merely a basic mechanic assistant/labourer and accumulated his skills gradually over time as well as his job description. Today, he is highly sought after for his skills set and thus became the highest wage earner. Most of the extra skills he acquired was on overtime when maintenance was required (for which he was compensated for usually a half days' work at overtime rates). His transition from mechanic to driver was also sponsored by the company for his heavy vehicle driving license when trust developed over his dedication and hard work. He supports 2 wives and their children, as well as other "girlfriends"; and as a valued worker we remind him of the dangers of AIDS prevalent in truck drivers (his own uncle succumbed to it). Through one of his wives, he owns a small grocery shop and is beginning to accumulate wealth. For someone with only a primary school education, he has done pretty well for himself.

Coincidentally, how our truck driver progressed in his career is very similar to how my illiterate grandparents began as itinerant labourers and worked up until they acquired capital to open their own fruit/grocery shop. My own father trained in a steel plant in his youth and learned everything he could on the job, rising to manager status, before quitting, getting married and starting his own business venture. My mother worked 3 jobs concurrently before getting married and combining her skills with my father's in their family business venture, both with only high school diplomas.

To expect Chinese companies to provide the same working conditions, labour practices, business ethics as their western counterparts is unrealistic and contrary to their own experiences. These Chinese companies are late-comers to the market in Africa and need every competitive edge they need to stay in the market among established players to keep their costs down and prices cheap. Many are also owning their businesses for the first time and are still learning to ropes to run a company as well as the added difficulty of conducting business in a foreign country.

Chinese companies may also need to develop innovative strategies to create incentives and monetary discipline for their workers to maintain standards of production and morale. For example, our company employed a weekly salary payment with a "bonus" strategy that kept the wages higher than other local competitors, but that "bonus" would be docked for infringements rather than their core wages- i.e. the cost of damaged equipment/products due to negligence would be impossible/impractical to recoup from their wages in any case. It also shortened the unnecessarily lengthy chastisement of workers and the lessened negativity in employer/employee relations. A weekly salary as opposed to a monthly salary also curbed the premature depletion of workers wages on entertainment (with a smaller lump sum of money to squander), with a greater likelihood of workers returning to work consistently on Mondays (nursing less significant hangovers). Their dependents were also more likely to benefit from the disciplined spending and steady income; further, co-worker relations more amiable with less borrowing from each other leading to fewer disputes and less petty theft of company property. Transitioning from an agrarian production work force to an urban industrial work force has its obstacles that innovative solutions need to be found to ease that process. The Chinese would do well to ponder upon this and their corporate responsibility, even as small companies, and not just seek to benefit from their local cheap labour.

I submit the above examples of my own experiences, not only to illuminate the depths and layers of the relationship between the employer and employee, but also that relations need not be poisonous. These strategies/tactics came after many hard lessons were learned- often with the help of the (Taiwanese) embassy who would help assuage rocky labour union negotiations. Good relations with local elites, such as the judiciary, police force, lawyers, ministers, labour leaders that we befriended through their custom as well as the embassy's assistance in providing us with the relevant resources allowed many labour disputes to be ended swiftly and cordially. Local African corporate culture is in its teething phases, with more and more small companies finding their identities and relationship with the local population.

Through "localizing" our small company at various levels, awareness of corporate responsibilities (special discounts and donations for schools, hospitals, orphanages, public works), respect for local dignitaries and customs, mutual trust and respect was achieved between the employer and employee in how we interacted with the local population and allowed our company to grow more robustly. Despite the growing general negativity to other Chinese investors, in the last decade before my parents retired, they suffered no violent break-ins, no violent strikes, or large theft of company property for their integration into African society. They fondly enjoy their memories of their odyssey into Africa and were torn whether to retire there or to return home in the Far East. They maintain their link to Africa through sponsoring an orphanage they helped establish.

KF later added this clarification/elaboration:

The depth of the local talent pool available to Chinese companies is quite limited given that the best are already taken by better-paying multinationals. The workers in discussion were mostly illiterate or with very basic education, mostly from rural areas seeking work- at least 1/3 of the workers had to use their thumb print (being unable to sign their names) to confirm their receipt of collection of salary. When communicating a mathematical/structural concept between the Chinese and African staff in a foreign language (broken English that was foreign to both parties), one can imagine the frustration of the managers/foremen to communicate that to their staff in order to complete the task to a satisfactory standard AND on schedule.

Many of the African workers would claim they possessed certain skills, such as bricklaying, carpentry, metallurgy, etc., but were often economical with the truth of the level of their skills and experience- e.g. the subtleties between having "observed welding", "knowing how to weld" and "knowing how to weld to a high standard". This is understandable since they are eager to seek employment or seeking to be promoted for better wages- e.g. All of our mechanics claimed they "know" how to drive despite only having test-driven the repaired vehicles in the yard/compound. This can wreak havoc on expensive equipment, such as welding equipment, and cause logistical delays, unnecessarily waste materials and increase cost of maintenance. A task that would normally take 1 day to complete could take a week.

We also found the above true of the Chinese staff too. Many of our vehicles and equipment suffered damage because of our trust in their claims of being familiar with certain equipment or roadworthy drivers. The venerable company Toyota Hilux's engine, gearbox and chasis were still no match for our enthusiastic Chinese staff who "learnt" how to drive through an instructional DVD. They had put more faith in the DVD than on an African driving instructor (which they were also reluctant to pay for). Often, our African foremen would outperform the Chinese foremen, since the African foremen were personally trained and nurtured by the company and understood the "Bwana" better with over more than a decade of service to the company.

As proprietors of the company, we had to manage our expectations of our Chinese staff as well as our African staff; manage our Chinese staff's expectations of our African staff; manage our African staff's understanding of the Chinese staff's instructions; and finally manage our clients' expectations of what we could achieve. Despite my father having no prior training in construction, but his MANAGING skills allowed the company to prosper and minimized disappointments through finding local solutions and adapting to the environment. Further, as a LOCALIZED company we could offer post sales/construction services or maintenance which we were able to contractually provide. Clients could hold the company accountable to mistakes or rectify designs to their needs at later times. Many Chinese construction companies have disbanded unexpectedly for many reasons leaving behind disgruntled clients, debt, unpaid workers, and bad business reputations. Some of our Chinese staff was drafted from one such company that disbanded on bad credit. In fact, we were far more wary of our ambitious Chinese staff than the Africans who were generally more consistent.

Finally, I wish to add that our African workers are also hard workers for our company. Driving long distances, laying bricks, welding, digging foundations, roofing, moving materials/equipment, carpentry is very strenuous labour- especially with limited resources and tools in harsh environments. The limitations of their education/skills determines the kind of labour they are able to provide, blights the aspirations they hope for themselves and offers limited opportunities available to them in their society. The tempo at which Africa operates at cannot be compared to industrial nations and thus it makes no sense for that greater "urgency" that many consider Africans lacking. Many of our African staff who have served us well for decades, were nurtured and promoted by the company for displaying that "sense of urgency" on the job despite their base education. Some examples of their dedication to their work:

1) Our truck driver (secondary education completed) came to report for duty on his last day of his life before being ordered to return home to rest. He succumbed from his body's deterioration due to AIDS. His nephew, whom the company had nurtured from a basic mechanic assistant, took over his duties as the new driver.

2) Our sales representative (incomplete secondary education) reported for duty on the last day of his life, despite suffering cerebral malaria and succumbing to it. He insisted on coming to work, despite our repeated instructions for him to rest and wait for the doctor to visit him at the company's expense. His wife later remarried after squandering the consolation money, but we made provisions for his 3 children after consulting their mother in securing them in an orphanage providing education for better prospects (they are top of their class).

Thus, in our assessment it is a "nature vs. nurture" argument in the "laid-back culture" which African workers are often associated with. It would be mutually beneficial for Chinese employers to appreciate what is at stake for their local employees for them to develop that "urgency" and "ambition" that they so value. A little compassion can go a long way in our experience of Africa.

I hope I have responded adequately to dispel the concerns of prejudices or biases that may have been unintentionally caused by my previous piece. I may have been born in the Far East, but I am also African. I was raised and educated in Africa and consider her my home too. I apologize unreservedly for any undue distress that I may have caused.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm sure there are cultural differences that account for conflict between Chinese companies and Africans but lets not forget that there are labor conflicts in China. These labor issues take place in both Chinese owned and non-owned factories and work places. So, the notion that Chinese managers are not use to workers who resists working many hours and not getting compensated is off-the-wall.