NEWCASTLE, South Africa — When Karl Yan moved to South Africa last year to work at a Chinese factory, the last thing he imagined was that he would end up joining the local union.
Yan, a skinny, bespectacled 24-year-old from a small town near Shanghai, is a shop steward for South Africa’s clothing and textile workers union. He recently attended a union conference in Cape Town where, as the only Chinese delegate, he stuck out like a sore thumb — but he was a big hit with his South African comrades, who posed with Yan for photos and taught him their liberation dances.
In China, all unions are controlled by the state and they do little to help workers. South Africa’s unions, in contrast, are powerful forces that influence national politics and often disrupt production in factories.
These clashing work ethics meet in the industrial town of Newcastle, in northeastern South Africa, where there are scores of factories owned by Chinese and Taiwanese businesses. The South African union is now embroiled in tense negotiations with the factories because many don’t pay the legal minimum wage.
South Africa is China’s biggest trading partner on the African continent. Trade between China and South Africa was worth $16 billion last year, skewed in China’s favor, with South Africa posting a trade deficit of $2.7 billion. Chinese direct investment in South Africa is estimated at more than $6 billion, concentrated in the textile and clothing sectors as well as in the areas of mining, energy, machinery and building materials.
Across Africa, Chinese companies have often clashed with local communities over wages and working conditions. Some of the disputes have even become violent. At a mine in Zambia recently, protesting workers were shot at by two Chinese managers. It was far from the first incident of violence in Zambia, where Chinese employees have been assaulted by local workers, and vice versa.
In Newcastle, the Chinese company that Karl Yan works for, Sen Li Da Chemical Fiber, is trying an unusual approach: unlike most Chinese factories, it accepts the unions and is adapting itself to South Africa’s strong union culture.
Yan was encouraged by his bosses to join the union, as were the rest of the staff, including some 75 other Chinese employees and nearly 100 South African workers. The factory, which opened just last year, turns recycled plastic bottles into chemical fiber that is used to stuff pillows, duvets and toys.
“They have seen the trouble caused by other Chinese factories, the big strikes,” said Thanda Ralushai, 31, a South African office administrator at Sen Li Da who is also a union shop steward. “So they knew what they were doing when they came here.”
Yan, who works in communications and translation, sees the union as a way of “working together” with local people. “Communication solves a lot of problems,” he said.
Frank Fang, the company’s office manager, decided to call in the union organizers after suffering conflicts with the South African workers, including work stoppages. He wanted the union to educate workers about their rights and the processes they must follow in disputes with their employers.
“We are willing to cooperate with local employees to create peaceful working conditions,” said Fang, who has lived in South Africa for 18 years and is now a citizen. The company’s owners are from China, where one of them owns a similar factory.
“If we get good working conditions, then both sides benefit, employee and employer,” Fang said. “This is a very poor area. The people need jobs.”
Despite its good relationship with the union, Sen Li Da pays its workers below the minimum wage, like nearly all factories in the area. The legal minimum wage is between $46 and $68 a week, depending on the job. Some Sen Li Da workers make the minimum wage but others do not. The union said that not enough workers are making the minimum wage.
The Factory’s owners said that if they are forced to pay the legal minimum wage, they won’t be profitable and will have to shut down. This would be devastating to an area with 60 percent unemployment. When unions launched a strike a few months ago, some workers said they were willing to keep working for low wages because it was better than nothing.
Betty Mbele, 37, who works in the store room at a Chinese-owned clothing factory, shakes her head sadly when asked about the wages. She doesn’t like the situation, or her Chinese boss, but has no other job opportunities. Mbele works from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and earns only about $47 a week to support her two children, but she doesn’t bother asking for more.
“Some people are getting even less than me,” she said.
The Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union awarded the Newcastle Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry its 2010 “Worst Employer Award,” for paying workers “slave wages.” The award, a broken brick, symbolizes “employers who break, not build, decent work in the clothing industry.”
“Workers are willing to work under such conditions because they have no alternatives,” said Patrick Vundla, a union representative.
Alex Liu, chairman of the Newcastle Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that the factories are competing not only with imports from China and many other Asian countries, including Cambodia and Vietnam, but also with neighboring African countries. Some of the big textile factories in Newcastle have already closed in the past few years, and others are considering moving to neighboring countries such as Swaziland, Lesotho or Mozambique.
In the 1990s it was mainly Taiwanese who opened factories in Newcastle, but most of the newer factories are Chinese-owned. Some of the factory owners from China and Taiwan have been in South Africa for 10 to 20 years and say they feel a connection with the local community. They object to how they are portrayed by the union.
Liu complains that the union, with its award, has “branded Chinese-South Africans in a negative way” and “polarizes South Africa’s diverse ethnic population.” Emphasizing that Newcastle’s Chinese community is creating employment and donating money to help orphans and local schools, Liu asked, “Are these the actions of a community that intends to exploit South Africans?”