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Cape Verde's Chinese Shops Draw Praise, Criticism

In the West African island nation of Cape Verde, Chinese small shop owners have been setting up corner stores for about 10 years. Locals welcome the cheap goods, but not the low pay. Phuong Tran visits Chinese shops in Cape Verde's capital and has this report for VOA.

A Cape Verdean vendor sits on a crowded sidewalk with a basket of garlic, sun-wilted tomatoes and one overripe mango.

She says Chinese stores, like the one she sells in front of, are good for Cape Verde. She says it was hard to afford shoes, games and clothes in the early 1990's before these shops appeared.

The vendor says things are different now because the shops sell cheap imports and have created jobs.

These family-run shops are called "baihuos" in Chinese, meaning general merchandise. They are packed from the floor to the ceiling with low-priced imports.

Earlier this year, some Cape Verdeans working in the Chinese shops went on strike in the capital, saying they worked long hours with no breaks, and were not paid enough.

Union activists said these workers earn about $50 each month in a country with an average annual income of about $2,000.

Minister of Labor Sara Lopes says Cape Verde must accept the rules of foreign investors and business people if the tiny island nation wants to compete with bigger countries.

The minister says the Chinese demand higher productivity at lower pay, which she says is a shock to islanders' relaxed work style. But Lopes says Cape Verdeans need to adapt if they want to make more money.

For more than 15 years, Chinese businesswoman Jenny Yuan has run three companies selling office furniture, custom-made doors, and other goods. She employs her son, niece and Cape Verdeans.

Yuan says she treats them all well, but does not say how much she pays.

Yuan adds she is having a hard time with the business. Chinese competition has forced her to lower prices. She says she makes less money now.

Two doors over, a recently arrived Chinese shop owner helps customers in his family's hardware store.

Speaking the island's native Creole, the Chinese businessman says he misses his one-year old son in China, but is prepared to stay as long as he can make money.

Researchers examining the growth of the Chinese community in Cape Verde since the late 1990's say the Chinese run about 200 small shops throughout the islands, mostly in Santiago and Sao Vicente.

About 2,000 Chinese live in Cape Verde, less than .50 percent of the country's nearly 425,000 people.