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Malawi: union negotiators learn Mandarin Chinese to deal with errant employers

2 October, 2018To improve negotiations with employers, shop stewards are learning Mandarin Chinese so that their demands are easily understood without ambiguity by using a common language.

Five IndustriALL Global Union affiliates in Malawi, part of a union building project supported by SASK, took this decision after facing difficulties communicating with the Chinese employers.

It is common for the employers to say they don’t understand English whenever workers put forward their demands for better wages and working conditions. Besides low pay, the companies are not complying with labour laws on conditions of employment. Most of the workers are employed on precarious conditions of short-term contracts that come with no benefits. Health and safety standards are also being ignored at their factories and operations.

To remove the language barrier, five shop stewards from energy, engineering, mining, and textile sectors are on a nine-month Mandarin Chinese course in Blantyre and Lilongwe. It is hoped that when they finish the course in March 2019, they will be able to negotiate with the employers in their own language.

With China committing to over 60 billion dollars for Africa during the recent Forum on China Africa Cooperation, of which over 100 million dollars will go to Malawi through investments by Chinese companies, the Mandarin lessons are a worthy investment for the unions. Further, China is involved in infrastructural development including road construction, and in the energy sector especially the construction of the Kammwamba coal-fired power plant. However, questions are being asked on why China is investing in coal instead of renewable energy.

Generally, China is supporting Malawi’s economic development programmes that are aimed at reducing poverty and promoting sustainable development. Yet, the balance of trade favours China which sometimes exports labour to Malawi instead of employing locals.

Says Amos Chasowa, the IndustriALL project coordinator for Malawi:

“Unions concluded that they had to learn the Mandarin Chinese language because negotiating with the employers was increasingly becoming difficult. Besides English, the Chinese do not speak any local Malawian languages. The dilemma was that whilst the employers did not understand the workers grievances, unions still had to push for these demands at the workplace”.