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China in Africa: The Real Story

Chinese Workers Build Infrastructure in India

Deborah Brautigam

photo credit: Deborah Brautigam (c)
Catching up again -- over Labor Day -- I read a fascinating article by Rama Lakshmi from the Washington Post: "Chinese Workers Fuel India's Staggering Infrastructure Boom," (October 24, 2010). What I read could have come from many parts of Africa. And in particular, it reminded me of towns I visited in Eastern Nigeria where Chinese teams were working with Nigerian workers to construct factories for Nigerian owners. It puts the widespread use of Chinese workers in Africa in international perspective.

Takeaway Points:

(1) Skilled Chinese workers can be effective trainers:
Perched precariously on scaffolding, several Chinese workers showed Indian laborers how to weld the shell of a blast stove at a steel plant construction. Step by step, the Indians absorbed the valuable skills needed to build a large, integrated factory from scratch in record time.... "This factory is a classroom for Indian workers and we will create a benchmark for speed, quality and cost," Singh [the company's director] said.
...The Indian workers are learning a new work ethic from the Chinese and are now more punctual, not stopping work to take frequent tea-breaks or gossip, managers said.
(2) While India has a labor surplus, low level workers lack appropriate skills.

"India may be an IT superpower ... But the biggest gap is in the availability of skilled electricians, carpenters, welders, mechanics and masons who can build mega infrastructure projects ... Most of these workers have to be trained on the job. And that often delays the projects and makes them more expensive."
 (3) The ratio of Chinese to Indian workers: at one factory site (under construction) was 1600 Chinese supervisors, technicians, and other laborers to 5000 Indian workers, or 25:75.  This is fairly similar to the 20:80 ratio I've seen, on average, in Africa.

(4)  Speed, as well as skill, is the great China advantage.
The Indian workers earn slightly less than the Chinese, whose speed ultimately brings down the cost of the project.... The steel plant is expected to take 18 months, a rare feat in India. ..
These details provide one answer to the idea that vocational training may be all that's needed. Sure, it will help in building skills, but maybe not in building work habits. The tone of the article was refreshing: curious, balanced, informative, detailed. A hat tip to DH.