Chinese investment in the West African state of Benin has brought substantial and visible benefits to the country but local workers complain of exploitation and even slavery.
The Beninese government and Chinese entrepreneurs insist that all is well on Chinese-run infrastructure projects but as in other parts of Africa, there is a growing backlash against China’s focus on the continent’s vast natural resources and the methods used to extract them.
Although China has become a major trading partner, there is unease about employment practices and a tide of cheap Chinese imports into this country of 8.5 million.
“We can’t go [on] like this, its almost slavery,” one worker said, reflecting a widespread sentiment, whatever the soothing words of the government.
Workers building new roads and other infrastructure projects are deeply resentful.
“We do the work for half the rate while their fellow countrymen don’t have the same qualifications and are paid two or even three times as much,” said Jean-Luc, 47, who did not give his last name.
He has a qualification in building concrete structures and works at the site where a new teaching hospital of 100 beds is taking shape at Parakou in the center of the country.
The US$8.25 million project is entirely financed by China and is due to open in a year’s time.
Jean-Luc is almost nostalgic for the time when the French, the former colonial masters before independence in 1960, were the bosses.
“With them we all had social security health benefits. With the Chinese, nothing! And when you are ill or injured, even if you have a medical certificate they think you have taken time off: it isn’t fair,” he said.
“Human rights are worth little on Chinese sites and if it goes on like this we shall make our voices heard,” said Gaston Azoua, a trade union official. “We are not xenophobes or racists but you cannot flout the law on the pretext they are helping us.”
The Chinese embassy here denies the accusations of unfair treatment of workers on projects funded by Beijing.
“Chinese businesses are not slave drivers,” an embassy official said. “If there are cases of ill-treatment, the victims should report them so we can find solutions together.”
The government in Benin, which lies between Togo and Nigeria and is considered one of Africa’s most stable democracies, insists that bilateral cooperation runs smoothly.
“Benin benefits from several Chinese-financed development projects,” Beninese Foreign Minister Jean-Marie Ehouzou said. “As for the Chinese on our soil, we repeat that every investor is welcome in Benin. But if there are cases of proven ill-treatment they should be reported.”
Over the last 10 years, Chinese investment has grown by 50 percent a year, said the Laboratory for Economic Analysis in the capital Cotonou.
The Chinese community has grown from 700 technical assistants in the 1980s to more than 3,000 today.