Chinese firms and employment dynamics in sub-Saharan Africa

Project overview

Project lead: Carlos Oya, School of African and Oriental Studies

Start date: 1 January 2015

End date: 30 June 2019

Project webpage

Research Council project page

Emerging economies in Africa have experienced accelerated growth and varying degrees of structural change in recent years, especially since the early 2000s. In some countries growth has been resilient, even during the post-2008 global recession—at least until very recently. International investors and contractors from different parts of the world have contributed to these processes in different ways.  

Foreign firms, including Chinese firms in particular, have had a substantial role to play in many African countries. Indeed, China’s growing economic engagement in Africa is attracting widespread attention, and is generating debates both in the continent and beyond about the implications for Africa’s economic development.

While myths and rumours abound, there is as yet little reliable evidence on the effects of this investment on employment dynamics, especially in some of Africa’s fastest growing sectors, such as construction, services and manufacturing. Whether foreign investment can contribute to creating an industrial labour force will be important not only for Africa’s economic development but also for the livelihoods of its workers.

In response to such concerns, this project aims to collect quantitative and qualitative evidence on employment in foreign (including Chinese) and domestic companies in the key sectors of construction (mainly public works) and manufacturing. Ethiopia and Angola are the focus of the survey efforts, two countries where the presence of Chinese and other foreign firms has been significant in the past ten years.

The project examines:

  • Direct employment creation, namely, the number of jobs provided to national workers in both Ethiopia and Angola, the nature of such jobs (temporary, permanent, etc.), and the share of jobs held by national workers as a proportion of the total employment created within both different groups of firms.
  • The working conditions for national workers in sampled firms, focusing on wages and other benefits. The project will also investigate how conditions across all types of companies compare to those in the same sectors in China itself.
  • Skill development and upgrading for national workers who have worked in foreign and domestic firms in the target sectors and comparative training mechanisms across different firms. The focus will be on skills development, training and job experience.

Read the project synthesis report here.

The image used on this page was taken by Davide Scalenghe as part of this project. 


Follow-on Grant

Carlos Oya has secured a follow-on grant from the ESRC to take the DEGRP research further until March 2021, with the aim to deepen understanding of some of the labour challenges facing Ethiopian firms. With a focus on skills, work cultures and organisational capabilities in Ethiopia’s light manufacturing, the study will explore employment dynamics such as high labour turnover, relatively lower than expected staff retention, and labour conflicts linked to managerial level capacity.

It will extend current research by examining present and past experiences of existing, and especially new, emerging industrial firms and their workforce dynamics. In particular, the study will look at how firms find, develop and retain a skilled and managerial workforce in order to improve both their sustainability in the country and labour relations in the workplace.