Who is monitoring plight of Malawian workers under foreign investors?

“Many of the poor health and safety practices we found in Zambia’s Chinese-run mines look strikingly similar to abuses we see in China,” Bekele said. “Respecting labour laws and ensuring workers’ safety should be standard operating practice both in China and abroad, not treated as an irritating barrier to greater profits.” – Human Rights Watch World Report 2012-

It is now common to find all things Chinese in this part of sub Saharan Africa; in fact, all households have at least an item or something that is made in China.

The Chinese influence has even extended to huge investments in infrastructure.  Lilongwe is one city which in ten years time may just look like a “Mini China Town” with a state of the art Parliament, built during Bingu’s time, a symbol of our democracy, presidential villas, hotels, supermarkets, townhouses and now soon to be completed will be the state of the art national stadium that is being constructed in the heart of the city.

One cannot help but to admire how much the Chinese have invested in Malawi.   Now it seems that with this there are also challenges that have come as a result of these investments, administratively, it appears that the Chinese have set up the terms of how they will invest in the country.

Against this background, this article aims to bring to the fore the debate that is going on now on the human rights violations perpetrated by some foreign investors which go unreported or sometimes ignored by the authorities.

I will not dwell on other investors that have also abused Malawian workers or are still doing so, as this is not only a Chinese phenomenon, they are others that do it as well.

However, this article specifically, puts the Chinese investors under the microscope based on the events reported this week and also World Human Rights Watch Report 2013 for China.

Personally, I have taken an interest in this issue having interacted with some of the employees in Lilongwe.  Evidently, it is the Chinese that are constructing more projects in the city centre than any other investor in the country.

The question that everyone may have after reading the revelations of the abuses perpetrated is why has this issue for a long time not been given prominence or seriousness it deserves?

This is due to several factors propagated by the conducive environment that our benevolent partners in development have found in Malawi; the loopholes in the laws which are there, but are not enforced or the fact that the authorities that are meant to monitor such abuses are either sleeping or slumbering, or do not care or have no capacity to monitor, probe and protect workers’ rights.

You may pick one or two according to the recent events where a Chinese national was caught chasing a Malawian employee with a baton stick who happened to have flouted the rules or had been caught stealing.  Whatever the case, corporal punishment or if indeed,  the Chinese national was targeting to punish the Malawian conjures images of a slave master beating a slave, pathetic to say the least in this 21st century.

‘Dignity’

I am still reeling from shock that carried the headline of the story which the media captured on Tuesday, 7th January, 2014.  However, I am not surprised that such atrocious human rights violations are still occurring in Malawi.

In fact, others may wish to know that several human rights activists including the Malawi Human Rights Commission have received several complaints from the Malawian workers these complaints range from unfair labour practices to general cruelty that they face in some of these construction sites or places of employment.

What is more disturbing is that up until now those cries have not been heeded and workers continue to work in such horrible conditions because the circumstances in the nation i.e. unemployment and poverty force them to remain in such jobs.

I want to agree that we as Malawians are equally to blame for this complacency and laxity, allowing such atrocities to happen before our very own eyes in our own backyard when we know that what is happening unlawful.  The Republican of Malawi Constitution and our labour laws are quite clear on unfair labour practices and slave like conditions.

It is sad and appalling to note these abuses have been ignored for a long time indeed and that it took the Daily Times picture to trigger the actions which fall short of what these workers have been experiencing.

Reportedly, the government has only reacted briefly and shows that this is no big deal though the supposedly short fact finding mission that it will commence from now on– sending inspectors and firing a warning shot that those found abusing workers will risk deportation. Really? Incredible!

Is this all what our authorities can do? What actions will Government take on behalf of those that have been continuously abused? What about compensating them?

What about those that were dismissed from the sites without any remuneration? Are we saying that Government is content with such measures?  When these abuses have been going on for such a long time?

Is it not Government’s primary responsibility to protect workers’ rights in accordance with national and international standards?

Rather than blame the investors flouting our labour laws, Government has to put more stringent measures against all investors that are flouting labour laws, this should not only end at firing a warning shots of deportation.

On the other hand, the Chinese Embassy has responded to the news by issuing the following statement…. “The Chinese embassy is disappointed with reports that managers of a company building the new stadium in Lilongwe are abusing local workers on the construction site.”

The Chinese Ambassador to Malawi Pan Hejun expressed his dismay at a meeting where he summoned officials of the Sogecoa Construction Company on Tuesday. He said an investigation has been instituted into the alleged abuse of Malawian workers.

An interesting response from one friend following these developments challenged me and I am compelled to share as I agree with her that entirely; “I wish the Chinese Embassy would do more than being disappointed and conducting investigations. Issues of this nature have been documented for some time in Malawi. I also wonder what Malawians are doing about it.”

Where indeed is Civil Society? What are they doing to assist the vulnerable workers?  Should we assume that since China is our main donor then we must not respect the dignity of the poor Malawian worker or they just do not want to rub the Chinese the wrong way, fearing that that they will take their investments elsewhere, besides, who among the donors invests in infrastructure in a speedy fashion and grandiose way better than the Chinese?

‘Impunity’

It is important to note that this trend or pattern of abuse is not only common here in Malawi, but both in Zambia and Mozambique where it has been reported that Chinese-run copper mining companies in Zambia routinely flout labour laws and regulations designed to protect workers’ safety and the right to organize, according to Human Rights Watch World Report 2013.

Internationally, perhaps demonstrating the influence of growing popular objections to abusive Chinese investment projects, the Burmese government made a surprise announcement in September 2013 that it would suspend the primarily Chinese-backed and highly controversial Myitsone Dam.

In Zambia, Chinese-run mining firms announced a sudden wage increase following the election of the opposition Patriotic Front, which had campaigned in part on securing minimum wage guarantees.

On 9th January 2014 Al-jazeera website, reported that 230 striking employees of Chinese state-owned construction company allege they were beaten by employers went on strike to demonstrate against the Chinese Investment Companies …”These Chinese have no respect for the people. They insult us, beat and send us away when they want and for no reason,” Antonio Mavila, a worker who claims to have suffered repeated assault, said on Wednesday. “We cannot continue to work without being paid and without being respected as human beings,” another worker John Matusse told AFP news agency.

With such damning reports both within Malawi, regionally and internationally, on how the Chinese are treating national workers in countries where they are investing there is need for the authorities to urgently galvanise and protect workers’ rights.

It is my hope that other key players like the Malawi Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of labour and Workers Union will critically forge alliances to investigate and put up measures that are not short term but sustainable.

I thus recommend that there should be a deliberate revision of the workers contracts to see that they are remunerated well, improve working conditions by giving them adequate protective gear, first aid kits and ambulances must be provided to respond to serious injuries – cut the long shifts, provide a bus and temporary shelter with adequate ventilation and toilets for the workers to use when they are resting from the long shifts.

It is imperative though that Government should monitor all investing companies and that this should not be on ad hoc basis.

As Malawi is developing, it is important that as a country we are also adhering to international standards set for protecting workers rights. Time for Government indifference is over.

Let us respect labour rights and empower our people to stand up for their rights when others are flouting them with impunity.

Deliberately, the government must investigate further on these abuses and ask the Chinese Authorities to create procedures for grievances and a fund to compensate those that have been aggrieved as a result of the unfair labour practices.

Lastly, I would want to reiterate what the editorial comment carried yesterday in the Daily Times that the Malawian society as a whole, acting through public and private institutions, has the moral responsibility to enhance human dignity and protect human life.

  • The author, Habiba Osman is a Human Rights defender and activist working as advocate of anti -human trafficking responses
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