Small Chinese entrepreneurs in Namibia have brought cheaper goods to Namibian customers, and jobs to some, albeit at a cheap price. This has often led to friction between local labour and the foreign employers, New Era reports.
By Catherine Sasman
“I came to ask for a job and was happy to have found one,” said 27-year-old Werner George. “I was down; I didn’t have a job.”
Having completed his Grade 12, George was only able to hold down contract jobs since. Now, he is sitting at Shop I in Windhoek’s China Town where he has worked for some days as a casual worker. “I am a salesman and they said they will give me N$300 per month,” he said from his chair placed at the entrance of the warehouse selling beds and bed stands, tables with flower-covered tops and other trinkets.
While George was waiting for potential customers at the door, his Chinese employer was tinkering in a backroom that serves as a kitchen with the smell of lunch wafting into the open area of the shop.
Outside the shop next door, Ndapewa Ngifikwa and her Namibian colleague were standing in the sun shaking out floor mops and cleaning rags.
When asked, Ngifikwa said she earns N$400 per month, one year and one month after taking employment with a Chinese couple running the shop.
“I clean the shop, I pack goods on the shelves and I help out with the customers,” said Ngifikwa.
“Sometimes I am happy here; sometimes it is not fine, especially when I think of my salary at the end of the month. I am on contract here, but if I make a mistake they will chase me away.”
At a Chinese restaurant in the China Town complex, a young waiter said: “I cook noodles, make dumplings, I clean the shop, and do whatever I am told to do. Sometimes I cannot rest because I rarely have lunchtime off. The Chinese boss will shout if you do. Sometimes you cannot even go to the toilet. They [the Chinese owners] will knock on the door and demand that you come out.”
Theresia Angula said she now earns N$550 per month after more than three years working in what she called a factory at the back of the Chinese shop where she works.
There, in the factory, Angula and other Namibian workers are assembling – or “fixing” – plastic slippers by making holes in the plastic soles and inserting the loops over the slippers. For one pair of slippers “fixed” they get five cents. The slippers are sold for N$10 a pair.
“If I work fast, I can make up to N$600 to N$700 a month,” said Angula. For a bag containing 120 slippers, she could make N$5, she said.
Her fellow workers in the front part of the shop get N$450 for “telling the prices to customers”.
Sonja Shikwa (27) also working at a Chinese shop said: “The salary is too little. I get N$400 per month after two years. I pack and sell. I used to work at Ramatex where I got N$800 for packing on a six-month contract.
Another worker at a textile outfit said: “I am not happy with my salary [N$400 per month]. It is too small, but I think it is better than nothing.”
This worker complained that she had to work on Saturdays from 08h00 to 13h00, as well as on some Sundays.
“But we do not get overtime for working over weekends,” she said. And lunch hours are not clearly defined either.
“If you find 10 minutes or so to eat some bread and a customer walks in, you have to drop your food and attend to the customer,” she said.
A young female casual worker in one of the shops standing in for her sister who is on maternity leave, said workers are generally fearful of expressing their dissatisfaction over the working conditions because they would otherwise have nowhere else to go.
These sentiments – of poor pay, long hours, and often erratic and derisive behaviour from Chinese employers towards their Namibian labourers – are recurring themes when speaking to the mostly young and poorly schooled and skilled Namibian workers recruited at Chinese trading shops.
But the Chinese shop owners hit back.
“I like Namibians. They are friendly. All people are the same,” said Chinese shop owner, Wei Xi, who sat at his counter after emerging from the back chambers of his shop while his Namibian workers were waiting for clients in front.
Struggling to express himself in English, Wei Xi said workers at his shop get overtime – for half days over the weekends and public holidays, the workers get N$20 or N$30 overtime.
At Pro V Foods and Drinks, Qiu Feng, also barely able to stitch together a couple of words in English, said most businesses in China Town are small in scale, with high costs, selling low quantities.
Although a labour inspector with the Ministry of Labour would not be drawn into making an official statement, he did concede that the ministry was aware of complaints against Chinese business owners.
“I am personally aware of Namibian workers getting as little as N$300 and on public holidays, some workers get as little as N$3 overtime,” he said. He even ventured to say that Chinese-owned businesses “take advantage” of the favourable treatment Chinese-owned companies enjoy in Namibia.
Labour Commissioner, Bro Mathew Shinguadja – in the absence of any real and thorough study so far done on the Chinese-Namibian labour relations – said a differentiation ought to be made between Chinese State-owned companies with bi-lateral agreements to other companies that enter the Namibian market on their own.
He was also of the opinion that much of the trouble cropping up between Chinese employers and their Namibian workers should be seen through a cultural – or work ethic – prism.
“The Chinese work to complete a job; we work to keep some for tomorrow,” said Shinguadja.
Herbert Jauch from the Labour Resource and Research Institute (LaRRi) shares this sentiment: “What seems to be emerging is that there is a very different culture and history of the Chinese and Namibian workers. The history of China’s economic development is that it was based from a rural to an industrial one where low wages were the order of the day for Chinese workers. Trade unions there were also closely linked to the state and workers did not fight this. There was the notion of work for a better future that workers needed to be patient before they could get sufficient pay. This clashes with the Namibian experience where low wages and poor working conditions are viewed as part of colonial oppression; there is a clash with Namibian expectations,” said Jauch.
But, said Jauch, labour relations between Chinese-owned businesses and Namibian workers can be characterised by “extremely low salaries, non-payment of the legal minimum wage especially in the construction sector, long working hours, and generally poor human relations” between employer and employee.
LaRRi has just launched a study into Chinese-owned businesses in Namibia following a resolution taken two years ago at a congress of the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW), which is expected to be out in October.
Because there are no minimum wages for most sectors – the exclusions are the construction, agricultural and security sectors – other workers in other sectors, said the labour inspector, remain vulnerable.
“The Ministry [of Labour] should constitute minimum wages for shop attendants and well as for domestics, for example,” he said.
Jauch felt there would be a Chinese presence permanently in Namibia – and elsewhere in Africa – mainly due to China’s blistering growth into the industrial giant of the world. Hence, Namibian – and African – labour, should be more closely protected.
Since the 1980s China has increasingly moved to embrace capitalist production, where its GDP rose to US$2.1 trillion in 2005, making it the sixth largest economy with annual growth rates of over nine percent.
China’s new role in the global economy is also bringing about changes for workers in China.
According to the Financial Times of January 2008, Chinese workers in China can now expect a raft of new employment laws making it “… harder to fire workers or rely on casual labour”, where Chinese manufacturing companies in China are said to often rely on temporary staff that often constitutes 80 percent of their work force.
The Financial Times predicted that wages in China should go up by 10 to 15 percent this year.
In Namibia – and Africa as a whole – the conundrum of small Chinese traders dealing in cheap, accessible goods and poor African workers remain critical.
The small-scale Chinese entrepreneurs and their dealings with ordinary workers form the sharp end of China’s determined and massive inroads into Africa where the impact is most felt. It is a new settler community that might have to be more circumspect in its dealings with local communities and, most importantly, with local labour.