MATOMB, CAMEROON - Rising tensions this year between Cameroonian workers and Chinese companies have led to strikes on two Chinese-led road projects in support of better pay and working conditions. Violent confrontations have occurred, and the government is trying to mediate the crisis.
The strikers work for the China First Highway Engineering Company in Matomb, 80 kilometers south of the capital, Yaounde.
Union leader and strike organizer Wanyu Leonard said the workers decided their Chinese supervisors shouldn’t sleep until laborers' demands were heard.
"We are not well-paid. Our categories are not respected, and our allowances, like our housing allowance, lodging, feeding and also transport, none of that is respected," Leonard said. "You cannot imagine that on a project like this one. It is not normal. It has to change.”
Leonard said two-thirds of the 200 people working with the company do not have formal contract agreements.
The company is building a 250-kilometer road linking Yaounde with the country’s commercial capital, Douala. The strike has now spread to a second Chinese company building a road linking the capital to the airport.
Armand Balocock, an engineer on strike, said workers want a Cameroonian to be appointed to head human resources, as spelled out in the Cameroon labor code and as recommended by Cameroon authorities before the contract to build the road was signed. He said they also wanted all their advantages to be respected as spelled out in the collective labor contracts they signed with the Chinese company.
Four days into the strike, the government called a crisis meeting, but the workers refused negotiations without their Chinese supervisors present.
Some Chinese staff left the work sites after violent confrontations. Several local workers were injured when police intervened. Several striking workers have been arrested and the company offices have been sealed.
This is not the first time Chinese have faced problems in Cameroon this year.
In March, miners in the eastern town of Betare Oya forced out Chinese gold mining operations they said had taken their livelihoods and were not living up to promises to develop the locality, something the Chinese companies disputed. Angry locals slashed tires, vandalized equipment and beat up some Chinese miners.
Last month, Cameroon deployed its navy to seize illegal fishing vessels in the Atlantic Ocean, many of them Chinese, according to authorities. Tensions had been rising with locals who say foreign trawlers are overfishing for export, raising prices at local markets.
The Chinese Embassy did not respond to request for comment on this story. But China's ambassador, Wei Wenshua, spoke about Chinese companies in Cameroon during a ceremony last month. He spoke through a French interpreter.
He said Chinese working in Cameroon have always accomplished their tasks diligently in all aspects, including health and infrastructure building in towns and in the countryside, and he was satisfied with their work.
Cameroon's minister of public works, Emmanuel Nganou Ndjoumessi, who has been organizing the talks on the road workers’ strike, said the Chinese companies were struggling to meet deadlines, facing problems related to late disbursement of funds and some administrative bottlenecks.
Ndjoumessi told VOA that Cameroon was eager to work with partners of all nationalities. But he said the government would stop the contracts of any companies found to be violating the terms of those deals.