China’s business operations in Africa may have a human rights problem

Chinese banks and companies have funded and built projects worth billions in the continent.
Chinese banks and companies have funded and built projects worth billions in the continent.
Image: Reuters/Florence Lo
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As Chinese companies continue to venture abroad, there are more and more reported cases of human rights violations by the businesses, with a significant number in Africa, according to a new report.

According to the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, a London-based nonprofit, Africa has the second highest number of allegations of human rights abuses, with 26.7% of the claims recorded against Chinese companies operating abroad from 2013 to 2020. Asia-Pacific has the most with 39.6% and Asia the third-highest with 26%, the report says, describing the three regions as “high-risk.”

The center looked at human rights abuse allegations linked to Chinese business conduct abroad during this period. Its sources included local and international nonprofits, and media reports. Researchers found 679 allegations, and managed to get 102 company responses.

Most countries in the Belt and Road Initiative are African

Africa is a significant part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure development strategy to invest in other countries and international organizations. Most of the countries participating in the initiative are African. Chinese banks and companies have funded and built railways, roads, ports and other projects worth billions in Africa. But some of the initiatives have been marred by accusations of discrimination and abuse of local people by Chinese companies.

Still, over the years, China has tried to implement numerous safeguarding policies for its international ventures.

According to the report, the allegations of human rights abuses in Africa were mainly related to the metals and mining, energy, construction, finance and banking, renewable energy, and food, agriculture, and livestock sectors.

The most frequent issues, the report said, were connected to “loss of livelihood, inadequate disclosure and EIA (environmental impact assessment) and labor issues.”

In general, Kenya, Uganda, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were the countries where abuses were most frequently recorded. One reason, the report said, is public focus on controversial energy and infrastructure projects, and the significant presence of Chinese mining companies.

Few companies responded to the allegations of human rights abuse

Only 24% of the Chinese companies accused of human rights violations responded to the allegations, the report said. Most of them, it added, referred to their commitments local laws rather than international laws, a situation that the report says may be problematic, particularly for host countries that have weakly written or enforced laws.

The report suggests a number of measures to address the human rights issues. The researchers said Chinese companies should:

  • “Develop and implement strong institutional policies on transparency and disclosure”
  • “Continuously identify and assess actual and potential human rights and environmental risks prior to beginning a project”
  • “Establish effective operational-level, non-judicial grievance mechanisms”

“Given the challenges illustrated in this report, there are great opportunities for companies, business associations, the governments of China and countries hosting investments to further strengthen the regulatory environment and its implementation by Chinese companies operating overseas,” the report adds.

Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech, and innovation in your inbox.