African Female Workers in Chinese Companies in Kenya: Myths and Challenges

By Chen Jin

“Honestly, we don’t want any female workers here.” Ms. Zhou, manager of an upscale Chinese restaurant in Nairobi, put it without hesitation. Indeed, local women are under-represented in Chinese companies operating in Kenya.

Over the past five years of Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese entrepreneurs are swarming into Africa market. According to the newly released McKinsey report in 2017, there are over 10,000 Chinese-owned enterprises operating in Africa today. In Kenya, the number can be around 400. While Chinese companies are certainly the “rising star” offering great job opportunities in Kenyan labor markets, the employment issues could be intriguing. Apart from McKinsey’s concerns about employment formality and working conditions, the gender perspective remains much in a myth to address female labors in Chinese companies.

In Kenya, cultural norms sustain that certain works requiring physical strength are masculine while females should play the role related to housework. Such gender roles could contribute to the employment gender ratio in Chinese companies as an overall cultural norm. As shown in the graph, the ratio differs dramatically in the three most popular industries for Chinese companies, which are construction, catering and hospitality industries.

The eye-catching Chinese presence in the construction industry has helped to deal with the surplus labor force in Kenya. Especially, construction sites for local infrastructure can usually employ up to thousands of labors. “During the construction period of Southern Bypass (in Nairobi), the number of local workers reached 1,600 and they worked for 3 years,” described proudly by Mr. Li, branch manager of one of the largest Chinese central enterprises in Kenya.

When it comes to local female labors, it is a quite different story. Based on the site visits to two Chinese state-owned construction tycoons and two private ones in Nairobi, the number of women workers never goes beyond 10 and they are responsible solely for kitchen chores and cleaning works. No wonder Mr. Xiang, site manager of a new project financed by the World Bank, finds himself in an awkward position that “when the World Bank had its due diligence check last month, the chairlady complained about not seeing female workers here.”

Physical strength and technical skills are two reasons that construction companies prefer male workers. “Most of the jobs (at construction sites) are technical and strength needed, such as rebar workers, crane drivers and even subs doing carpentry and plasterwork. Women are only employed to complete simple tasks,” explained Engineer Chen from a private residential construction site, days before he laid off 15 out of the 22 ladies doing cleaning works on site.

Relative physical weakness and lack of skills make female labors disadvantageous to get a job, which also leads them to get paid less. From interviews with over 20 women workers in Chinese construction companies, they are normally paid by the day at the amount of 300 to 400 shillings (approx. 3 to 4 dollars). And working in the same position as subs, women are paid around 15% less than men per day. For skilled works, the gap can be greater.

“Ladies are crying,” one of the cleaning workers kept saying while the interview was carrying on. Most ladies on the construction sites are from Kwangari and Kibera in Nairobi, where low-income households and slums are located. For such family, “the average number of kids can be five and above,” stated by Audrey from Femme International, a women empowerment NGO based in the slum. It is thus not surprising to find young single mothers crying for a higher salary when they have to support the whole family.

Besides the pay gap, sexual harassment from the Chinese managers and foremen is another great challenge. It took Beatrice, head of the female cleaning workers, a while to disclose it in her workplace. “He would touch you. If you do not refuse, he would come closer. And if you love him back, he would use you. And even misuse you.” It is especially true with the less-educated Chinese foremen who live apart with their wives in China. To satisfy their libido, some would simply offer small money in return for sex, which can already be a great lure to the low-paid female workers.

To turn the tables, Chinese construction companies are also making efforts to prevent sexual harassment, though largely by cutting the number of local female labors at the current stage. As acknowledged by Mr. Xiang, the affairs once got media exposure can be a real “scandal” from the perspective of public relations, making female workers even more unfavorable in Chinese construction companies.

Construction is not the only industry that has a strong inclination against female labors. Chinese restaurants in Kenya are also employing more male workers, contradictory to the traditional conception of female gender roles in service sectors. Based on the interviews with three medium- and high-end Chinese restaurants, the average gender ratio of their local employees is 4:1 (M: F). One of the Chinese restaurants with KTV venues and nightclubs has only two waitresses out of the total 15 local workers.

Male workers are deemed to work with more aspiration, learn with less time and be capable of doing heavy work. It remains in a myth why they could earn such a high reputation in restaurant employment. On the opposite hand, women are thought to be less passionate about work and with obvious physical weakness. “Local female labors might think (certain tasks) are for men only,” a front desk manager of a Chinese restaurant said. The manager then explained that certain waitresses are not able to open wine bottles and use Chinese traditional rolling pin after she taught them several times.

Characterized with efficiency, the Chinese value time a lot. Lateness for work happens more often among female workers and usually disappoints their Chinese managers. But female workers have their own excuses. “They need to finish duties at home, and they have to hold up more family burdens,” said Jimmy, manager of a Chinese hotel equipped with a restaurant.

The pregnancy has also been a long concern for Chinese companies. Operating the high-end restaurant Hinata, Ms. Zhou complained, “Today this lady can be pregnant. The next day, she is on her period. Things can go on and on and they always have some special requests.” In the industry whereby a lot of time and efforts are demanded, female workers cannot even guarantee regular attendance once pregnant. And the practice of maternity leave is not prevalent among Chinese restaurant. Instead, Chinese managers would rather simply dismiss the pregnant waitress with an oral notice.

Women in hospitality services are relatively more popular. Chinese hotels are inclined to hire female receptionists and hired all women for room services like cleaning the toilets. Different from the construction work requiring strength, occupations like bed making and front desk receptionist require carefulness and interpersonal skills to serve the customers with politeness and hospital attitudes.

Therefore, Chinese hospitality sectors tend to rate education level as a priority. “ (In our hotel) salary depends on education first, and experience” Jimmy shared with us. The graph below demonstrates a relationship between education level and wage of female labors in work fields of construction sites, hotels, restaurants, and housekeeping.

Even though relatively better-paid, receptionists in Chinese hotels still have complaints about the “sweatshop-like” efficiency, “for people who work nightshift for 16 hours, the next day is going to be tired. And that day would just be sleeping.”

To address the female labor issues, a lot of international NGOs and community-based organizations in Kenya are devoted to female vocational training in areas of catering, hospitality, housekeeping as well as construction works. Yet promising cooperation between NGOs and Chinese companies need the efforts from both sides. “We don’t know any Chinese companies, ever. Of course, we would like to work with them,” said Peter, U-TENA resource mobilizer who devoted to addressing the female joblessness issues. On this canvas, one side stands the not so empowered African females and on the other side the newborn Chinese business. To which extent will these two groups crush, it is still within a blessing.

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