Indian investor building Afreximbank complex accused of discrimination

Jeffrey Moyo

HARARE—A 60 year-old Zimbabwean engineer, Vupenyu Zhou, has accused Shapoorji Pallonji, an Indian company contracted to build the regional headquarters of the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) in the capital, Harare, of favouritism.

Shapoorji Pallonji is a diversified conglomerate comprising 15 major companies that offer services in engineering and construction, infrastructure, real estate, water, energy and financial services in a market that spans 40 countries, Zimbabwe included.

In late 2021, the Zimbabwean government granted Afreximbank land in the capital to construct a centre to facilitate intra-African trade.

The groundbreaking ceremony was held in September 2022.

Afreximbank groundbreaking ceremony (Source: Indian Embassy)

The centre will house the bank’s regional office, a world class hotel, a tech incubation lab, a trade information centre and a conference facility when completed.

Too old

Zhou had engaged the Indian company to be considered as one of the Afreximbank project engineers and was advised that he was too old to be hired.

Instead, according to him, the company sought his services as a consultant who would scout for firms that Shapoorji Pallonji planned to contract but none of them got the job.

Zhou reportedly established that the contracts had, instead, been awarded to Indian firms under unclear circumstances, a development that led the engineer to conclude that the Shapoorji Pallonji management in Zimbabwe had practiced favouritism by excluding Zimbabwean and other companies he had suggested as a consultant.

“Companies I had shortlisted for jobs at Shapoorji Pallonji kept phoning me, asking whether or not they had been shortlisted for contracts, but when I made a follow up with the management, I was told they had already given the contracts to Indian companies.

“Even the president (Emmerson Mnangagwa) brags about this country being built by its own people. That’s not what is happening in reality,” Zhou told NewsHub.

He accused public officials tasked with licensing foreign companies of soliciting for and receiving bribes to circumvent local competitors.

“The one who says the country is built by its owners is the president. His people on the ground love money and they are bribed to let foreign firms employ workers from their countries, leaving the locals jobless,” alleged Zhou, who in 2019 returned from Namibia where he had worked as a mechanical engineer in the ministry of Works and Transport.

The Indian ambassador to Zimbabwe, Rungsung Masakui, dismissed Zhou’s allegation of favouritism at Shapoorji Pallonji, insisting that most of the employees were locals.

“It’s not true that they (Shapoorji Pallonji) are getting their labour from India. In fact, there is no labour from India. Some engineers, or management staff, only the top level, five to 10 percent is there. There is only minimal management and engineers from India,” Masakui told NewsHub.

The Indian embassy urged Zimbabweans affected by the alleged favouritism to seek legal recourse.

“If they have some problems, they can take legal recourse because, as you are aware, the visa process and the work permits are done by the Zimbabwean government. It is the prerogative of the company on what to consider as their best interests as per the legal benchmarks of the host country,” said Nadeem Ahmed Khan, the Second Secretary at the Indian embassy in Zimbabwe.

Illegal workers

Chinese investors have also been accused of excluding local expertise in key positions, preferring their citizens, some of who reportedly lack requisite skills.

There have been cases in which Chinese nationals have been flushed out by immigration officials after getting into Zimbabwe and working without permits.

An inter-ministerial committee in May this year temporarily suspended operations at Bikita Minerals that is now owned by Sinomine Resource Group from China.

One of the reasons for the suspension was the illegal employment of Chinese nationals, scores of who would reportedly flee and hide from government officials making routine and monitoring visits to the company’s Masvingo premises.

An official at the Chinese embassy, however, professed ignorance over the alleged discriminationlocals in strategic job appointments.

“We don’t know about this issue. Please contact the relevant local government department,” Xiong Nengzi from the communications department at the embassy told NewsHub.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) is worried by the reported discrimination against prospective local employees and contractors.

“It is known that investors from Asia bring their own stuff, including workers and the food that they eat. You can’t even see where they buy food to eat here because their own food comes from their countries,” claimed Japhet Moyo, the ZCTU Secretary General.

But Steve Zhao, a long-time Chinese investor in Zimbabwe, insisted firms from his country were non-discriminatory and argued that it was cheaper to hire locally.

Steve Zhao

“Most Chinese companies do employ more locals than Chinese. The immigration law in Zimbabwe is that you can’t employ foreigners when you can find a local skill. So, most of the companies are employing more locals,” said Zhao. “To employ a Chinese, you need to buy air tickets, pay for their accommodation and it becomes more expensive than hiring locally.”

He added, however, that Chinese firms were in some cases forced to resort to expertise from the Asian nation because locals did not possess the requite knowledge regarding the equipment, technology and language involved in their operations.

Locals employed by Chinese firms have often complained of under-payment, harassment and under-par working conditions.

On why companies from China were electing to contract Chinese nationals or companies for some of their jobs, Zhao said: “That’s commercial now. Normally, they choose their partners according to capacity, knowledge, finance and equipment ownership. It is not an issue of who owns the company.”

Donald Rushambwa of the China Africa Economic and Culture Exchange Research Centre (CAECERC) echoed Zhao’s sentiments.

“We want to make it clear to all Zimbabweans that, at times, the machinery that the Chinese bring here has instructions written using the Chinese language and local engineers would not be knowing anything about the Chinese-imported machines. That’s why it looks like they favour the Chinese,” said Rushambwa.

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