Across Africa, Chinese companies are being contracted to help construct roads, buildings and a myriad of other infrastructure projects. The Chinese seem to be living up to their reputation of industriousness. But in Chad, and elsewhere on the continent, conditions at some Chinese worksites are becoming unbearable for their young African employees.
Alex, as he prefers to be called, works as a firefighter at the Djarmava refinery in Chad. The refinery was built and is managed by the Chinese.
The young Chadian citizen, with an advanced technician certificate from Maiduguri in neighbouring Nigeria, was employed in the capital city by the municipality of N'Djamena. But that was when he first returned from Nigeria. That was when he used to work eight-hour days, five days a week.
Since joining the refinery, Alex and his fellow firefighters have been working endlessly. "We practically have no breaks," a colleague named Gon says. "We work around the clock. After 15 days, we are normally entitled to ten days break. Now they want to cut the break down to seven."
The situation Gon describes is commonplace in many major African capitals. On some worksites in Cameroon, for instance, when the Chinese came to build infrastructure, locals were shocked to witness how Chinese workers sometimes toiled late into the night. It stunned Cameroonians, who might only work five to seven hours a day.
Before long, rumours began spreading. One notion in frequent circulation is that that many Chinese employees in Africa are in fact prisoners who have been "imported" from their homeland and are working in exchange for their freedom.
"When the refinery was built, the Chinese worked in such a way that one might think these are really slaves," says Alex.
Long hours aside, some African workers find that their wages are too low and decisions about their payment may be discriminatory. "We earn 250,000 CFA francs," says Alex. "But we heard that some of our Chinese colleagues can earn up 700,000 CFA francs."
A foreign officer at the Chinese embassy in N'Djamena recognizes that many Chadian nationals complain about the wages difference. Yet, according to the diplomat: "We should remember that wages are also related to work experience. Some Chinese workers have more than 20 years experience. Therefore, they cannot earn the same salaries as locals. These Chinese employees are very experienced."
The diplomat cites a recent example concerning a Chadian driver whose driving error caused a refinery cable to break, which will result in expensive repair costs. "Besides their remuneration, the Chadian workers are gaining in experience," adds the diplomat.
A loss for words
To make matters worse, African employees often find it difficult to stand up for their rights. "When you want start a protest, the head of personnel tells you to pack your bags and leave if you are not happy," says Alex. He adds that is it not easy to formulate structured demands. "Many Chadian workers employed here are illiterate, and they do not really understand when you talk to them about their rights."
But do the African workers actually have a choice? In N'Djamena, the cost of living is very high and steady work is hard to come by. People tend to take whatever job they can find - including those offered by employers speaking a different language.
As the Djarmava refinery firefighters have found, communicating with Chinese colleagues is not always easy. "Some of them cannot speak French, English or Arabic," says Alex, so when we want to communicate with them, we mix all the languages and use gestures." One hopes the word for "fire" is not lost in translation.