BEIJING // China's engagement in Africa has come under the spotlight amid claims from Zimbabwean union officials that Chinese companies are engaged in the "gross violation" of labour rules.
Chinese firms are said to have underpaid workers, forced them to work overtime for free, and not provided adequate safety clothing, according to the Zimbabwe Construction and Allied Trades Workers' Union.
The complaints were made to the Zimbabwean newspaper Newsday.
"We would like to warn the Chinese contractors who are operating in Zimbabwe that if they do not follow the laid-down laws, the union is going to take strong action against them," the secretary general of the union, Muchapiwa Mazarura, told Newsday.
He said members had complained of the "gross violation of labour laws", and called on Zimbabwean government ministries to make greater efforts to ensure Chinese companies complied with the law.
"When the Chinese donate funds for projects and development to the government, they should be reminded that our government does not donate human resources in return," Mr Mazarura said.
The comments have gained widespread media attention in China, and labour rights organisations said they had heard similar complaints.
They represent the latest controversy centred on China's extensive dealings in Africa, which have polarised opinion among observers as bilateral trade has grown to exceed US$100 billion (Dh367bn) a year.
Some see China's focus on building infrastructure as speeding development in a way aid money has failed to, while others have voiced fears China is exporting its own poor environmental and labour standards to Africa.
While as many as 750,000 Chinese nationals are thought to have moved to Africa, Deborah Brautigam, an academic and author of The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, said during a visit to Beijing this year that Chinese companies operating in the continent employed about 80 per cent African staff. She said "often standards are not good" for such employees.
According to Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for the Hong Kong-based pressure group China Labour Bulletin, Chinese companies were "exporting their domestic management style" to Africa.
"We have seen several cases in Africa with local workers being treated very badly by Chinese companies, expecting the local workers to work in the same conditions as the same standards they would expect workers in China to work in. These conditions are pretty bad," he said.
Tensions between Chinese managers and African workers often develop, Mr Crothall said, as a result of "culture clashes". While in Chinese factories, staff are commonly expected to work long hours and at high speed, such expectations create "resentment" when applied in Africa. He called on Chinese companies in Africa to pay workers "decent" wages and not to flout the local laws.
Chinese companies operating in Africa have denied they are mistreating workers, in comments made to media in China.
Staff were provided with protective clothing and paid according to rules set out by the local trade union, Ge Yizhong, the deputy general manager of Zim Nantong Construction, said of his company's operations in Zimbabwe.
"There is no ill treatment of workers at my company," he told the Global Times newspaper. "We have adjusted working hours to meet workers' demands. We have raised their pay twice since last year to counter the devaluation of the local currency."
As well as disputes over labour standards, China's ties with Africa have sparked concerns that efforts to promote human rights and good governance are being undermined, because development assistance does not depend on improvements in these areas.