Why do the Chinese import workers to Africa when so many here are unemployed?

Eric Olander and Cobus Van Staden of The China Africa Project write about why Chinese companies in Africa 'import' workers from China instead of hiring locals.

Chinese workers in Ghana

- Kwabena in Accra via Facebook

Dear Kwabena,

I think if there was poll taken in Ghana or anywhere on the continent of what angers people most about the Chinese in Africa this issue would be #1, by far! I completely understand where you are coming from. In fact, the World Bank just came out with some new data that revealed 48% Ghanaian young people are unemployed, so you’d think it’d only be natural for the government to do more to force Chinese companies to hire local workers as part of the contract for infrastructure projects, right?

Let me present a different side of the argument…


First, and foremost, when officials from the two governments reach a deal to build infrastructure in Ghana, it’s not intended to be a jobs program. The objective of these contracts is to build a road, a bridge or some other piece of infrastructure that your own government has deemed essential.  This isn’t an aid program, often it’s not even a traditional development program similar to those done by Western governments over the past few decades. Nope. This is pure business. The Ghanaians say they need a road, the Chinese say they can build it.

China has been especially successful in Africa and other developing markets with its infrastructure business because it undercuts both local and international competitors, sometimes by as much as 50%. For a country like Ghana, with its limited budgets, the so-called “China Price” is the reason why these Chinese companies often win the bids. Well, part of that is that Chinese companies have an integrated system of financing, engineering, material sourcing, etc… that allows them to build at a lower cost. And yes, part of this is labor, but it’s important to be clear what kind of labor we’re talking about and how much of it they really do import.

The Chinese will argue that it would take way too long to hire local engineers and project managers which would also push up the budget. So for specialized managers, they say it’s critical to bring in their own folks to do the job. That makes sense. The far more questionable practice is when they import “wheelbarrow pushers” or unskilled labor. Here, I totally agree with you that this is inexcusable, even deplorable given the high levels of unemployment in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa.


The issue of how much unskilled Chinese labor is actually employed in Africa is often way overblown. I don’t know about the construction sites that you’ve passed where you’ve seen Chinese workers, but I’m almost positive that those Chinese represent a small minority of the overall workforce on the project. There is a lot of research that’s been done to show that the vast majority of workers on Chinese construction projects in Africa are locally-hired.


Nonetheless, even if the numbers are small, the optics look bad when Chinese unskilled labor work in countries where too many people are unemployed. However, I think it’s important to step back and see these projects for what they are (building critical infrastructure) and what they’re not (aid-based job programs).

-       Eric

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