Anyone but the Chinese, Madagascar workers demand new masters

China President Xi Jinping
China President Xi Jinping
China President Xi Jinping

Workers at a Chinese sugar refinery in Madagascar, where a long-simmering labour dispute boiled over into deadly riots last week that left at least four dead, are unequivocal about what it would take to get them back to work.

“We don’t want the Chinese. We do not want to work with the Chinese,” Leon Clement, a workers’ representative at Sucoma, said.

“In front of government ministers they promise to give us more rights but they never do!”

Bernard Jerome, another of the 2,000 people employed at the Sucoma plant in Morondava on Madagascar’s west coast, said, “We’re asking the State to find new partners. Anything but the Chinese.”

As the dust settled on days of violence at the refinery workers recited a litany of grievances that had poisoned labour relations: miserly pay of about $37 (30 euros) a month, special privileges for a select few, humiliation and pressure for those lower down the food chain.

After months of wrangling between management and the workers, the protests turned violent in November.

Two Chinese employees were injured in clashes, which caused damage to the plant.

Tensions took a deadly turn last week after two of the workers’ leaders were arrested.

Two people were killed and nine injured in clashes between the workers and police. The following day, a security guard and a soldier posted to the factory were stabbed to death.

Two policemen were also killed when their motorbike was run over by a truck in a separate incident, regional authorities said.

Around 20 Chinese executives have been evacuated to the capital Antananarivo after their living quarters were ransacked and looted.

Sugar stocks were also plundered.

An AFP reporter witnesses scenes of widespread destruction at the refinery, where machines had been overturned, company jeeps stripped for parts and the tyres of trucks used to transport workers slashed.

Shards of glass from smashed windows and documents littered the floor of the sheds. Some of the documents had been torched.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Chinese owners who saved the previously state-owned refinery from bankrupcy in 1997, said the company would seek compensation from Madagascar’s government for the damage.

“To fix this company, it will take perhaps three years,” Zhou Jianping said, adding the company would only consider firing back up the factory if the government could provide a “peaceful investment environment”.

– ‘Madagascans killing Madagascans’ –

Reacting to the violence, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Antananarivo said the workers’ demands had taken an “irrational” turn.

China’s heavy footprint in Africa, one of its biggest supplier of oil, copper and other resources, has led to tensions in some countries, with the visitors sometimes accused of exploiting workers.

Sucoma’s spokesman downplayed the anti-Chinese character of the incidents, blaming instead unspecified “forces” for “inciting the criminals”.

Malagasy media and officials also said they suspected other forces were at play.

The Midi Madagascar newspaper claimed a senior official close to former president and coup leader Andry Rajoelina had instigated the unrest.

“Yes, there are political leaders who encouraged it,” Bernard Jerome, one of the employees who railed against his Chinese managers, said with a sigh. Jerome said he was too afraid to name names.

Local officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP they believed the real intended victim of the violence was Prime Minister Roger Kolo, a native of Morondava.

A former Sucoma employee offered a similar explanation, but with President Hery Rajaonarimampianina instead as the victim.

“They are people who pay Madagascans to kill other Madagascans,” he said.