Armed soldiers on Wednesday moved in to break up a peaceful demonstration by about 30 construction workers who were fired by a Chinese company building the controversial National Defence College, outside Harare.
According to a report by the NewsDay newspaper, the former workers gathered at the construction site to protest against the 'illegal termination' of their contracts by the Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group (AFEC-G). But soldiers guarding the complex intervened and chased the workers away.
Workers who spoke to the newspaper said their contracts were terminated on Tuesday without notice and they had not been paid their wages and benefits for the last month. Several said they were made to work long hours and regularly went home around midnight. Those who complained were fired on the spot.
The Chinese employers are also said to have been making dubious deductions from the workers payslips. One worker said they were being paid US$1.27 per hour but their pay slips later reflected that at least US$100 would have been deducted from what was due. The company claimed these were NSSA and pension contributions.
Last year parliament ratified a US$98 million loan from China to build the defence college which was described by many observers as nothing more than a giant spy centre. Several reports said the "facility will also monitor diplomatic, domestic, commercial and military communications."
Despite the MDC-T objecting to the deal and having a majority of MP's in parliament to block it, the party said its hands were tied as they were now part of the government. The decision exposed skewed priorities in a government struggling to raise money to finance key sectors like health and education.
Chinese companies are now a dominant player in the construction industry in Zimbabwe. SW Radio Africa spoke to Muchapiwa Mazarura, the Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Construction and Allied Trades Workers' Union, and he confirmed the growing problem of Chinese companies violating labour laws.
Mazarura complained that Chinese companies who are getting most of the contracts in the country are failing to provide protective clothing such as hard hats, overalls and hard boots. He told us the AFEC group building the defence college are also involved in another project near the National Sports Stadium in Harare.
Mazarura said workers at the site are working long hours, finishing and are not being paid any overtime. This week he visited managers on the site and they bluntly told him the company could not meet all the requirements of the labour laws "because we are donating our investment in this country."
Chinese companies like Anjin Investments, involved in controversial diamond mining in Chiadzwa, have also been accused of paying their workers peanuts and not providing them with protective clothing. Last year 600 workers went on strike there demanding improved working conditions and a review of their salaries.
The strike ended after management agreed to a 25 percent wage hike.