By Donald Nyarota
Chinese investors should commit to protecting labour rights and respecting local communities to rebuff negative perceptions of their investments in Africa, civil society has said.
Speaking during a Zimbabwe-China relations Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) stakeholders meeting organized by American Friends Service Committee and the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA), local civic society leader urged government to enhance transparency and accountability in contract negotiations.
Under the BRI initiative, China aims to improve global connectivity and cooperation through transport infrastructure projects to reduce travel times along economic corridors, increase trade, income and lift millions of people out of extreme poverty.
Leonard Mandishara director National Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (NANGO) said there was need to rebuff negative perceptions of the impact of Chinese investments.
He said the lack of a comprehensive redress mechanism, purported preferential treatment of Chinese investments as well as exploitative tendencies were at the centre of the negative perception of Sino investments.
“There is need to deal with all those kinds of negative perceptions as viewed by Zimbabweans, investment form China particularly from the extractive sector has an environmental impact, not only Chinese investments but all investors in the sector.
“What is lacking is a redress mechanism to address such issues, as well as the perception that Chinese investments are given priority to others, while they are also loosely regulated in particular when they are accused of violating labor rights.
“Government has allowed Chinese investors to operate tax free, while there are wide spread exploitative tendencies from Chinese investors in Zimbabwe, some of the labor market abuses is even bordering on physical assaults of workers.
“China needs to rebuff this negative perception about its investment in Africa to ensure sustainability of these interventions,” said Mandishara.
Nthabiseng Nkomo country director American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) said opaque business practices caused limited knowledge of contracts, overshadowing positive impact of Chinese investments, which fuels suspicion from civil society and negative perception from communities.
She said to ensure sustainability Chinese investments should seek a social license to operate from host communities to hinge on protecting local gains, urging for bilateral economic deals to be relooked at to reflect on mutual benefits for local communities and investors.
“Human security levels suggest that relationships have been compromised, host communities have suffered from lack of engagement, weak policies and lack of political will to address arising conflicts.
“As part of our broad-based recommendations, there is need for a social license to operate, a powerful tool to compel companies to respect host communities.
“We need to develop a rigorous monitoring system for Zimbabwean government, Look East Policy and BRI is not formally and publicly developed, need to disseminate this information to key stakeholders,” said Nkomo.
She added, “There is a need to reset relationships between Chinese investors and communities in African countries to demonstrate political will and narrow the divide.”
Nkomo also called for the lifting of barriers to investment including traditional foreign policies, complex business structures, arrangements and the meaning of investments and an increased investment in public relations.
Chinese Ambassador Guo Shaochun said their foreign investments focus on common prosperity rather than meeting individual needs of one country.
He said the investment opportunities provided by the BRI initiative were ready to be leveraged for developmental gains for international cooperation.
“We hope more countries invest in Zimbabwe’s infrastructure without any conditions. So far, no major project between Zimbabwe and china is imposed on the country but it is upon request from the Zimbabwean government.
“There is over US$750 billion in investment opportunities for foreign countries presenting huge opportunities for countries participating in BRI including our brotherly friend Zimbabwe.
“The BRI is not a geopolitical tool as claimed by some western countries. It is however an initiative that presents opportunities, for all participating countries,” said Ambassador
“The BRI is proposed by China, but its opportunities and achievements are shared by the whole world. It aims to achieve common prosperity rather than to meet interests of individuals countries.”