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China in Africa: The Real Story

Nigeria: Labour Practices in Chinese Factories

Deborah Brautigam

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.