The government of Kenya advised its citizens on Wednesday to “appreciate” the work of Chinese companies and learn from their experts after documented allegations of abuse perpetrated against Kenyan workers by Chinese employers.
“In recent weeks, Kenyan media have been awash with reports and images of what appears to show Kenyan workers being mistreated by the Chinese builders of the Standard Gauge Railway that was launched in 2017. One image showed dozens of workers lying on their stomachs,” Voice of America News reported.
The railroad project has also been accused of killing buffalo and lions by running trains through a national park. Conservationists have criticized the government’s plans to protect the park as inadequate.
The response of the Kenyan government was to defend Chinese business interests, suggest the workers brought their mistreatment upon themselves, and advise citizens to let the Chinese know just how much Kenya appreciates their investments:
The Kenyan government has promised to take action against those behind the abuses. However, government spokesman Eric Kiraithe says his fellow countrymen’s behavior at work is also to blame.
“Even as we talk about the [railway] and the racism and all that, it might be necessary for us as a country to change our work ethic,” Kiraithe said.
Kiraithe called on Kenyans working at the railway to learn from the Chinese on how to operate and service it, so they can take over in the future.
“What we are expecting those Kenyans to do, those with an opportunity, is to shift the focus on the challenge at hand,” he said. “We are aware as a government that there are forces which are not very friendly to that project.”
“I am not saying any worker should be discriminated and humiliated in the workplace but we must all appreciate that the operations of a modern train is a profession that calls for military standard discipline,” Kiraithe said, implying that Kenyan workers are lazy and require a firm hand to get into shape.
This did not go over terribly well with critics of the railroad project, who accused the Kenyan government of toadying to the Chinese and condoning racism despite abundant complaints from Kenyan workers who described being treated as second-class citizens and denied privileges granted to their Chinese co-workers.
“Racism is so real here. There is an unwritten rule of where you need to sit. You cannot just join the Chinese table,” one railway employee reported. “You cannot board a van that drops us in the evening even if there’s only one Chinese on board. You will have to wait.”
While Kiraithe advised Kenyans to learn from their Chinese supervisors, railway employees have complained all of the instruction manuals are written in Chinese and “there is no actual transfer of skills that is happening here.” The Kenyan employees believe this is being done deliberately so that Chinese workers and supervisors will always be needed to run the railroad.
The Kenyan railway authority on Thursday also dismissed reports that the China Road and Bridge Corporation is forcing Kenyan employees to sign secrecy agreements that would effectively stifle complaints about how they have been treated.
The Standard Gauge Railway project has been criticized since its inception as a fabulously expensive boondoggle Kenya cannot afford, so its true purpose is to serve as an instrument of Chinese debt imperialism. 90 percent of the financing for the railroad came from China’s Eximbank, whose loans pushed Kenya’s national debt into the stratosphere.
The government implausibly claims the railroad will be so profitable that it can repay its Chinese debt in four or five years. Critics point out that in truth, the railway costs about ten times as much to operate as the revenue from ticket sales.
Kenyans who use the railway cannot help but notice its advertising materials are written in Chinese, the staff wears uniforms in the colors of China’s flag, and the Mombasa station features a statue of a famed Chinese explorer who visited Africa in the 15th century. On the bright side, the trains apparently work much better than the aging locomotives of the century-old British-built railway Kenyans refer to as the “Lunatic Express.”
“What we are witnessing is the selling-off of Africa’s future for a few bob. African leaders in many parts of the continent are not just selling their resources, they’re selling their people,” Julie Masiga wrote at the Digital Standard on Tuesday, comparing the Standard Gauge Railway to a slave plantation.
“We turned East, presumably because they are not finicky about small matters like human rights, free speech, and democracy,” Masiga lamented. “But now we are beginning to see that they have an ‘empire-building’ gene that is just as dominant as any other colonizer. Because what happens in the event that we default on all these Chinese loans? Can they foreclose on an entire country?”