Monday, December 30, 2013

Nigeria: Labour Practices in Chinese Factories

A Chinese biscuit factory in Nigeria. photo credit: Paolo Woods
I've been snowed under (so to speak) with work and travel for the last six weeks or so. I hope to blog more in the new year, since it's one of the most fun parts of my professional life. Meanwhile, I'll be posting some links to other interesting material on China's "going global", particularly in Africa.

Irene Yuan Sun, author of the popular post on this blog, "A Blind Date in Namibia," spent some of last summer in Nigeria, where she wrote up her keen observations in two articles for the Guardian (Lagos). In her first article, "Labour Practices in Chinese Factories," (October 19, 2013), Irene notes that investors from Hong Kong have been running factories in Nigeria for several decades. One factory is one of the world's largest makers of flip-flops, another, just opened, will be one of the world's largest producers of rolled-steel. An earlier Guardian article by Okechukwu Onwuka, "No power, no infrastructure, Yet Chinese factories are flourishing in Nigeria," also comments on this phenomenon.

Chinese employers have been criticized by NGOs and others in Nigeria for operating factories where workers are treated "more or less like slaves" -- yet most critics have not themselves actually been inside a Chinese (or Hong Kong) factory in Nigeria. Irene, who is bilingual, visited eight factories to observe their work conditions. She observed large variations in lighting, cleanliness, whether workers had protective clothing and safety equipment, yet, she says, the gates at "several of the factories I visited were crowded with Nigerians who were hoping to find work."

Labor relations are one of the most commonly cited issues in the China-Africa engagement. Irene's suggestions for bilingual labor mediators at each factory and random safety inspections are good ones -- but hard to put into practice. Safety inspections with bite require a government that cares about workers. However, with the rapid expansion of Chinese language courses in Africa, the language of advocacy, labor relations, and mediation might shift from being exclusively English/French/Portuguese to include a focus on communication with the continent's newly significant investors from China.


Unknown said...

Belgium: labour practises in German, French, UK and US factories.

The Belgian economy is one of the most open in the world and we are very fond of foreign investment .
And all those investors came with their own labour experiences in their home countries.
But they knew the rules of the game and all were obliged to respect the Belgian laws.
Those laws are the result of centuries of struggle by the working class and their unions (even the right to vote came only after more than 20 workers were killed by the police and army)...
And yes, those factories are nowadays very often screened by state officials and union representatives and we also have some state mediators for industrial conflicts.
But we never needed those mediators for a language conflict (even as we have 3 official languages).
The investors are welcomed but they know that, as guests, they have rules to respect and in the Flemisch part of the country the whole of their administration must be in Dutch, in Wallonia in French, in Eupen & Malmedy in German and in Brussels they must respect the choice of each worker. And every manager is legaly obliged to address the members of his team in their native language. Also every written document must be in the mother tongue of the worker.
If this is not the case, and it becomes known to the outside world, then the company is in deep trouble, not only legally but also at the level of their turnover in one of the regions….
It took us some centuries of struggle but that’s the only way we found to have a “harmonious society” where “win/win deals” are made between the “social strata”.

Now it’s true that Belgium is a very small country and as such we need legal means to protect our languages…
On the other hand Nigeria is a big country with privileged relations with China ( “China and Nigeria have developed fraternal friendship under the principles of sincerity, equality and mutual support since they forged diplomatic ties over 40 years ago” dixit Chinese top legislator Zhang Dejiang)....
Problem solved I guess….

Deborah Brautigam said...

That's interesting Dan. English (the colonial language) is the official language in Nigeria, but many working class people do not speak it well if at all. In the Lagos area, Yoruba would be the primary native language -- the equivalent of the languages in Belgium -- with a lot of people also speaking Hausa and Igbo. But unlike in Belgium, few foreign factories would be expected to conduct their management and labor relations in native languages. Yet I imagine foreign factories probably employ HR people who can speak both English and local languages like Yoruba in order to ensure clear communication. In French, Spanish, or Chinese-owned factories, trilingual communications (English, the home country language of the investor, and at least one local language) would be helpful.