by Dirk van der Kley
It’s often received wisdom that Chinese companies mainly employ Chinese workers on their projects in Central Asia (for example David Lewis of Exeter University recently on the Majlis podcast). This view fails to recognise that Chinese companies have been localising for some time, and that old narratives on Chinese labour practices in Central Asia need to be reexamined.
There is significant evidence of Chinese companies employing Central Asians, particularly in labouring, clerical and interpreting jobs. Criticism of a lack of opportunities in management and technical positions is probably justified but some companies, such as Huawei, offer opportunities at that level too.
Chinese firms are acutely aware of the public relations benefits of hiring (or being seen to hire) locals. Most of the big Chinese projects now purport to employ a significant number of Central Asians. For example, Xinjiang Zhongtai claims that it will employ more than 3000 locals at a textile park it is constructing in Dangara, Tajikistan. These kind of statements are repeated again and again on cement plants, mining companies and oil refineries etc.
There is certainly some truth to these claims. I travelled to southern Tajikistan to see the construction of the aforementioned textile park. I witnessed Tajik truck drivers delivering supplies while Tajik-speaking labourers worked. But at the same time a Chinese site manager barked orders in Mandarin to unfortunate souls (nationality unknown) laying pipes in a ditch in sub zero temperatures.
The realisation about the public relations benefits of local hires has come, at least in part, via adversity. Several firms found themselves in hot water for not hiring enough locals. In January 2014 Zhongda opened an oil refinery in Kara Balta, Kyrgyzstan. It faced immediate protests over pollution and not giving locals enough opportunities. Suspicions remain that the protests were part of a political game. Whatever the reason for the protests, the company responded to employment complaints – In 2013 as the project was nearing completion the split was 30 percent locals, 70 percent Chinese. By 2015 the 700 employees were split 70/30 in favour of locals. Some company executives also indicated to me a desire to comply with legislation requiring a minimum percentage of local hires.
Chinese road and construction projects probably receive the most criticism for not employing locals. China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) undertakes many road projects in the region. By the company’s own estimate, it has participated in 90 percent of the major road projects in Kyrgyzstan since entering the market in the early 2000s.
CRBC has not only built Chinese-funded roads, it has consistently won ADB and World Bank tenders in Central Asia and elsewhere. Apart from demonstrating China’s ability to comply with international tenders as part of these projects, such projects require firms to fulfil local content requirements. A senior development bank official with significant experience in Central Asia told me that CRBC and other Chinese firms “had become increasingly sophisticated bidders which includes the social aspects of the bid such as local employment”. On a 2013 trip to Central Asia, I had a brief encounter with Kyrgyz labours working for CRBC in Northern Kyrgyzstan. They said that many labouring positions were local hires.
In other areas of construction Chinese companies increasingly hire locals too. On a freezing December morning last year I visited a Chinese aid project (discovered via Flickr) in Nurek, Tajikistan. A Chinese SOE, Yanjian, was constructing two technical schools on the edge of town. I found (as had the Flickr photographer) dozens of Tajik labourers putting the finishing touches to the schools. When I approached the on-site accommodation, it was clear that the managers and skilled labourers were Chinese.
Similar trends have been observed by Irna Hofman in the Tajik agriculture sector:
I observed (in the winter of 2014–2015), that several Chinese companies are replacing their Russian-speaking Chinese staff members with Chinese-speaking Tajik assistants.
While Chinese managers and specialists run Jing Yin Yin Hai, the work in the fields and in the greenhouses rely on locally hired labor. Local authorities initially had an important role in recruiting Tajik villagers, but in later years the organization of labor has been facilitated by the permanent appointment of villagers as guards and field supervisors.
Irna’s comment on Chinese speaking locals echoes my own observations. I have regularly encountered Chinese-speaking Central Asians employed as interpreters, assistants and in clerical roles for Chinese firms. A LinkedIn search shows, for example in Uzbekistan, that many of the senior sales, marketing, HR and engineering staff at Huawei are Central Asian.
There are limits to this localisation. Despite Huawei’s efforts, senior and technical positions remain dominated by Chinese. Some companies still employ a majority of Chinese – a Central Asian contact working for a Chinese company in the extractive sector says their large office employs 70/30 in favour of Chinese. And, of course, unskilled Chinese labourers continue to work in the region.
The trend lines however remain clear. Both Chinese firms and the Chinese government realise the necessity of localisation to make projects palatable to local populations. Wages in China are also much higher than in Central Asia (except for perhaps Kazakhstan) which provides an economic incentive to hire locals. Questions remain around the patchiness of local employment, but it is clear that broad statements about Chinese only hiring their own no longer hold true.