North West bonanza for Chinese

2017-01-29 06:01

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Johannesburg - Two government departments and two major trade unions have announced that an investigation will be conducted into how 242 Chinese nationals obtained permission to work and live at a North West plant owned by cement giant PPC.

The Chinese workers were employed as part of PPC’s endeavour to add capacity to its Slurry plant with a R1.7 billion total investment into its new kiln.

While on a visit to the plant on Monday, City Press saw Chinese workers welding, carrying formed concrete structures and standing in a pit surrounded by concrete moulds.

PPC insists these workers have “special skills”.

Chinese company CBMI Construction was awarded the tender for the upgrade project, known as SK9.

Slurry is situated about 20km from Mahikeng, where unemployment, including those who have given up looking for jobs, stands at 44.6%.

According to Stats SA figures, the youth unemployment rate in North West stands at 47.1%, while the rate in Mahikeng is 35.7%.

Dipeen Dama, PPC’s senior project manager, confirmed that the value of the engineering, procurement and construction contract with CBMI Construction amounted to $90 million (R1.2 billion).

Work started in October 2015 and is scheduled to be completed in 2018.

Pipeline installation

Mokgadi Pela, spokesperson for the department of labour, said an application had been received for 400 Chinese nationals to work at the PPC plant.

This figure tallies with the 400 available positions that CBMI advertised in The Times newspaper at the end of July 2015.

The closing date to apply for these jobs was August 14 2015, which left little time to hire local workers as CBMI started work at the plant less than two months later.

The skills stipulated in the advertisements included a minimum of “three years relevant working experience with specialised cement plant equipment installations and operations [China manufactured]”.

They also required height and welder certificates, as well as “pipeline installation experience” and “experience of refractory installations” in “more than three cement factories”.

The advertisements went on to stipulate that there was “no accommodation available – provide own” and there were “no relocation fees”. However, a compound was built to house the 242 Chinese workers on site.

After being informed about the situation at the plant, home affairs spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete said the department had instituted an investigation into whether the permits used to bring the Chinese workers into the country were valid.

In addition, Pela said: “The department [of labour] will investigate the matter.”

Special skills

Thobile Lamati, director-general of the labour department, promised to look into the matter after being contacted by Dennis George, the general secretary of labour federation Fedusa.

“It seems to me that PPC and CBMI Construction are in violation of our laws in terms of work permits. Could you ask your provincial office to investigate?” wrote George in an email to Lamati.

Livhuwani Mammburu, spokesperson for the National Union of Mineworkers, said the union, which is recognised at PPC, had no idea the Chinese workers were in the country.

He added that it was shocking to discover they were employed, given South Africa’s soaring unemployment rate.

“We are going to meet the company on site to investigate this further. We want to investigate what special skills the Chinese workers have,” he said.

Mammburu said PPC told the union earlier that the Chinese workers had “special skills” and the company had “gone through all the right procedures”.

Sizwe Pamla, spokesperson for labour federation Cosatu, said it would also ask the labour department to “investigate and act against this troubling trend of bringing foreign workers into the country”.

“If this trend continues, our economy will implode because we will have more unemployed people dependent on government for their livelihood,” he added.

“Our government is doing very little to protect the interests of workers and the local people in general. Chinese companies have constantly ignored our regulations and have taken advantage of the deep well of credulity and servility displayed by our leaders in relation to China.

“We are challenging our government to act decisively ... and prove that they are not prepared to allow China to become this country’s new colonial overlord.”

Local company

PPC spokesperson Siobhan McCarthy said no qualified local candidates responded to the job advertisements, adding: “Constructing a cement plant is complex.”

However, she was unable to clarify what trades the 242 Chinese workers were qualified in, if all the workers were skilled, or whether there were also unskilled and semi-skilled workers among them.

“PPC does not have access to the personnel files of CBMI employees,” she said.

However, McCarthy added that PPC was satisfied that CBMI had complied with all government regulations and protocols on the project, which includes local and foreign workers.

Leon du Plessis, PPC executive for projects, said CBMI Construction created a local company and brought the 242 workers into South Africa using intra-company transfer work visas.

Juan Locke, an immigration specialist at Ashman Attorneys Immigration SA, said foreign companies used intra-company transfer work visas to transfer skills or enable employees with certain skills to enter South Africa.

He said the high numbers of workers brought in for the PPC project was unusual because most companies used the visa to bring in people, such an engineers, “in double digits”.

McCarthy was unable to say how much the Chinese workers were paid because PPC did not employ them directly and, as such, was “not privy to this information”.

“In terms of the contract, CBMI and all its employees are required to comply with all South African laws and regulations,” she added.

Quality assurance

There is a clause in the intra-company transfer work visa regulations stipulating that “a plan is developed for the transfer of skills to a South African citizen or permanent resident”.

McCarthy insisted that PPC was doing this.

“A detailed ... training programme has been developed covering process training, key cement plant mechanical equipment, electrical and automation,” she said.

CBMI Construction is a subsidiary of Chinese company Sinoma, which has worked for PPC in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 2015, PPC came under fire for awarding a contract to Sinoma in Zimbabwe. Local construction companies accused the cement maker of sidelining them in the construction of a new cement plant in Ruwa.

Chinese companies are known internationally for bringing their own workers into the countries where they have projects.

The consulting and project management for Slurry is being conducted by Indian company Ercom Engineers.

The project’s quality assurance is being carried out by Chinese company Beijing Axis, Ercom Engineers and PPC.

PPC technical executive Hardie de Beer said key reasons they used Chinese and Indian companies were to save costs and because they worked fast.

In the case of Sinoma, PPC had already established a relationship with the company elsewhere in Africa, he added.

PPC’s SK9 project will increase the Slurry plant’s cement output from 1.2 million to 1.9 million tons a year while introducing technological improvements.

The SK9 expansion will not create any permanent jobs, but is attracting about 140 temporary local construction jobs as well as other jobs.

Dirk Hermann, chief executive of trade union Solidarity, said his union was represented at some PPC sites but not at the Slurry plant.

“The fact that 242 Chinese have been imported is highly questionable. We strongly doubt whether they all have special skills unavailable in South Africa,” he said.

“In the area around PPC-Slurry, people are suffering because of layoffs and unemployment. It is extremely insensitive to import 242 foreigners for the project.”

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Read more on:    ppc  |  mahikeng  |  construction

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