Zimbabwe probes worker abuse by Chinese firms

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Zimbabwe's government is investigating persistent reports of rampant abuse of workers by Chinese employers, the labor minister said Tuesday.

A team of investigators has already started visiting Chinese construction and mining companies to compile details of alleged abuses, Paurina Mupariwa said during the country's Workers' Day celebrations in the capital, Harare.

Labor officials say workers have complained of physical abuse by Chinese managers, earnings below the legal minimum, extended working hours and negligence over health and safety conditions.

Years of political and economic turmoil have seen an influx of Chinese businesses in a "Look East" policy announced by President Robert Mugabe. The creation of the policy is meant to replace Western investors scared off by human rights violations and a black empowerment program that envisions seizure of 51 percent of foreign-owned firms, excluding Chinese.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, a former labor leader, said Tuesday that workers now suffering record unemployment pinned their hopes on democratic reforms for future economic growth.

Tsvangirai, in a shaky coalition government formed with Mugabe after violent-ridden and inconclusive elections in 2008, said the power-sharing deal has made it difficult to pursue any programs to improve workers' conditions.

"We have a unique coalition of opposing ideologies...this has resulted in the government dismally failing in its major responsibility of creating jobs...and setting the tone and foundation for economic progress and development," he said.

He did not refer directly to complaints against Chinese firms.

But Lovemore Matombo, a veteran labor union official, at another Workers' Day gathering in Harare, said the government has turned a blind eye to workers' abuse by the Chinese and have let them "run the economy," without regard to labor laws.

"The Chinese in this country are treated more like a scared cow by government. They don't want to observe our labor laws. Every investor should abide by the country's laws," he said.

Matombo said his organization has received complaints that the Chinese companies in Zimbabwe, apart from giving workers low pay, can go up to two months without paying any wages to their workers.

"Where they (Chinese) are supposed to give workers $400, they give them $80 and can take one or two months to do that. Workers are slapped and kicked," he said. "They don't observe safety requirements and provide no protective clothing in the mines."

Labor leaders have also reported Chinese managers using pejorative language against black Zimbabweans and locking them up in storerooms for alleged indiscipline.

Workers who recently protested working conditions at a military college being built by China outside Harare said their peaceful demonstration was violently broken up by Zimbabwean soldiers.

No response was immediately available from the Chinese embassy officials in Harare.

In the past, Chinese officials have avoided dealing with complaints against their nationals in Zimbabwe, stressing instead their close and cordial ties with Mugabe's party.

Mupariwa, the labor minister, said she expected the investigations to be completed this week. She will present the findings to the ministerial cabinet.

"We will not allow this in our country. We won't let it happen to our workers," she said.