Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden are the duo behind the China Africa Project and hosts of the popular China in Africa Podcast. We’re here to answer your most pressing, puzzling, even politically incorrect questions, about all things related to the Chinese in Africa and Africans in China.
China’s engagement in Africa is a distinctly 21st century phenomenon and, as such, is still poorly understood by most people, most notably among Chinese and Africans themselves who are still getting to know one another. In that spirit, we’ve started this new column as a way to help spark dialogue and cross-cultural communication in order to explore this fascinating, complex relationship.
In many instances, people are either too shy or embarrassed to publicly ask that question that could be misconstrued as insensitive or politically incorrect. In issues like this that touch on questions of race, power and culture, things can get messy real fast. Instead, we’ll take each question seriously, and with the benefit of our backgrounds in China-Africa journalism and academic scholarship, we’ll do our best to give you a thoughtful, well-reasoned response.
Every time I pass by a Chinese construction site and see Chinese people working it just pisses me off. Why do they have to bring in their own workers when so many young Ghanaians can’t find jobs? It just doesn’t make any sense!
― Sent via Facebook from Accra
I think if there was poll taken in Ghana or anywhere on the continent of what angers people most about the Chinese in Africa this issue would be #1, by far! I completely understand where you are coming from. In fact, the World Bank just came out with new data that reportedly revealed that 48 percent of Ghanaian young people are unemployed, so you’d think it would only be natural for the government to do more to force Chinese companies to hire local workers as part of the contract for infrastructure projects, right?
Let me present a different side of the argument. First and foremost, often when officials from the two governments reach a deal to build infrastructure in Ghana, it’s not intended to be a jobs program. The objective of these contracts is to build a road, a bridge or some other piece of infrastructure that your own government has deemed essential. This isn’t an aid program, often it’s not even a traditional development program similar to those done by Western governments over the past few decades. Nope. This is pure business. The Ghanaians say they need a road, the Chinese say they can build it.
China has been especially successful in Africa and other developing markets with its infrastructure business because it undercuts both local and international competitors, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. For a country like Ghana, with its limited budgets, the so-called “China Price” is the reason why these Chinese companies often win the bids. Well, part of that is that Chinese companies have an integrated system of financing, engineering, material sourcing, etc. that allows them to build at a lower cost. And yes, part of this is labor, but it’s important to be clear what kind of labor we’re talking about and how much of it they really do import.
Some Chinese construction companies will argue that it would take way too long to hire local engineers and project managers which would also push up the budget. So for specialized managers, they say it’s critical to bring in their own folks to do the job. That makes sense. The far more questionable practice is when they import unskilled labor, often referred to pejoratively by African leaders as “wheelbarrow pushers.” Here, I totally agree with you that this is inexcusable, even deplorable given the high levels of unemployment in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa.
The issue of how much unskilled Chinese labor is actually employed in Africa is often way overblown. I don’t know about the construction sites that you’ve passed where you’ve seen Chinese workers, but I’m almost positive that those Chinese represent a small minority of the overall workforce on the project. There is a lot of research that’s been done to show that the vast majority of workers on Chinese construction projects in Africa are locally hired.
Nonetheless, even if the numbers are small, the optics look bad when Chinese unskilled labor work in countries where too many people are unemployed. However, I think it’s important to step back and see these projects for what they are (building critical infrastructure) and what they’re not (aid-based job programs).