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Allegations of Mistreatment of Workers Denting Zimbabwe-China Relations

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping as they pose for the media after a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, April 3, 2018.
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping as they pose for the media after a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, April 3, 2018.

Allegations by various Zimbabwe workers that Chinese companies operating in the country have created “slave like” working conditions for employees, has created diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

In a recent statement, the Chinese Embassy in Harare accused the largest worker watchdog group, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) of carrying out an “organized smear campaign,” which it said was damaging Zimbabwe-China relations.

“The friendship and cooperation between China and Zimbabwe will not be compromised by defamation or defamation by any individual or force. The move to undermine the good relations between China and Zimbabwe will make us more confident and motivated to develop deep friendships and fruitful corporation between our two countries,” the statement read in part.

The ZCTU and the Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Union (ZFTU) have named Sunny Yi Feng, a Chinese-owned ceramic tiles company located about 40-kilometers west of Harare as one of the culprits, citing poor pay, over-crowded residences and exposure to dangerous chemicals, causing respiratory complications, as some of the examples of mistreatment.

Added to that are allegations by Collen Guvi, a former worker at another Chinese owned company, Galaxy Plastics in Harare, who told VOA Zimbabwe Service that he lost three fingers at work while manufacturing plastics, but says the owner has refused to compensate him or foot his huge medical bill.

Recounting the accident which took place in February, Guvi said, “My hand somehow got entangled and some of my fingers were cut off by the machine. I then went to Suburban Hospital and was told I needed to pay for the surgery to repair the damage. The manager who accompanied me called the owner and who said he did not have that kind of money and I left the hospital without being treated. When I came back to the company premises, he gave me US$50 saying it was enough for the surgery. The next day I went to Parirenyatwa (government hospital), but I was not given money for transport or medication. I needed to pay US$5 a day for dressing wounds. I was not given money to cover that.”

Guvi noted that the company eventually barred him from entering the premises.

He told VOA Zimbabwe Service that he then decided to contact the ZFTU, which addresses labor issues, for help in getting his severance pay, but claimed the labor union also took his money.

“I then decided to go to the labor union and after a lot of resistance, the owner agreed to give me a gratuity, according to my own estimate, the gratuity was supposed to be about US$1, 176 but what they agreed on after that I do not know, the figure was somehow reduced to US$400. But of that amount, I only got US$166. I then confronted the worker representatives after they again started saying they had received only US$300 and they had deducted their fees for representing me since I was not a member of the union. Attempts to get the money have failed as the union leaders and the employer are not responding to my calls,” said Guvi.

Contacted for comment on Guvi’s claims, the owner of Galaxy Plastics, Xieng Ha, responded via WhatsApp text with a copy of an agreement paper bearing the ZFTU banner as proof of payment of $400.

ZFTU secretary general, Kennias Shamhuyarira, has not responded to the Guvi’s allegation, but requested a copy of the agreement sent by Galaxy Plastics.

As a follow up to ongoing allegations of malpractice by Chinese companies like Sunny Fi Yeng, Shamhuyarira told VOA Zimbabwe Service that a delegation from the Tripartite Negotiating Forum, comprising business, labor and government had arranged a visit to the Sunny Yi Feng site to investigate alleged labor abuses.

“The issue of the Chinese mistreating Zimbabwean workers is a thing of great concern,” said Shamhuyarira, adding that the visit is standard practice for such allegations.

“So, this is how we handle these issues once they are reported to us just as good as this one, we will be able to act accordingly and promptly.”

Meantime, Sunny Yi Feng released a press statement denying allegations of abuse, and accused the ZCTU of fueling tensions with workers.

“At first, we welcomed the ZCTU as an organization that had constructive ideas of compliance to the Zimbabwe Labor Act, but later on, their actions turned more of inciting ideas of disgruntlement.”

ZCTU secretary general, Japahet Moyo, told VOA Zimbabwe Service that they have received many labor rights abuse reports, with the bulk involving Chinese-owned companies.

“As labor, we do not discriminate whether you are Asian or American. We try to assist all workers who are being abused at all companies locally-owned or foreign. We refer them to sector unions, but if we feel it needs government intervention, we engage it. When it comes to alleged abuses at Chinese owned companies, its well documented, there are even several videos circulating on social media of workers being beaten up by employees which is unlawful. The government is aware of these abuses, but we have not seen any serious action being taken yet. But since the government says if there are violations, the law must be followed, we urge all workers to report alleged abuses so that they can be documented and hopefully be resolved amicably.”

However, in an interview with VOA Zimbabwe Service, Labor Minister Professor Paul Mavima refuted allegations that government is unwilling to address alleged abuses by some Chinese companies.

“On the issue of those being allegedly injured at work and being illtreated by some Chinese companies, we do not dispute that it is happening,” said Mavima, adding, “we have a labor inspectorate department which monitors companies on compliance on the issue of labor rights. It is a matter that we also discussed in cabinet, I tabled it.

“The highest office (president) said all companies that want to invest in Zimbabwe must follow the country’s labor laws, there are no exceptions. When we do these inspections, sometimes we are accompanied by labor representative from the ZFTU, ZCTU and the National Social Authority department of occupational safety and health, to advise companies on what needs to be done. Some employers can be arrested if they endanger workers, and some can be forced to close.”

Zimbabwe has increasingly turned to China for financial support after Washington and the European Union imposed targeted sanctions starting in 2003, citing human rights abuses. Political analysts argue that these close ties make it difficult for Harare to censure Chinese companies that violate labor laws. The Chinese are also involved in mining and farming though Harare is not willing to divulge more details on the investments.