We Are Not So different: A Comparative Study of Employment Relations at Chinese and American firms in Kenya

Image: Flickr,  Hannah Brodie-Hall
Image: Flickr, Hannah Brodie-Hall

One of the most common critiques of China in Africa is that Chinese firms exploit local laborers and undermine labor standards.

Are Chinese employers actually worse to their African workers than other foreign employers? This paper explores the extent to which labor conditions at Chinese firms in Kenya are a function of firm nationality, as opposed to other characteristics like industry, firm size or length of time operating abroad. To do so, we interview managers at Chinese and American firms operating in and around Nairobi, Kenya, investigating the question: in what ways do Chinese employers relate to Kenyan labor differently than American employers? Through a comparison of Chinese and American management practices and attitudes, we find that ‘informality’, at the heart of critiques of Chinese management practices, is not uniquely Chinese but rather relates to various firm characteristics. Moreover, we find that many Chinese and American managers hold similar attitudes towards the qualities and limitations of their Kenyan employeesalthough they express these attitudes in different ways. In conclusion, we argue that researchers and practitioners looking to address labor issues at Chinese firms in Africa must attempt to unpack the variation among Chinese companies, and place employment relations at particular firms within broader contexts.

3 Mar 2017