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Work permit process frustrates Chinese envoy

Ambassador of China to Botswana, Ding Xiaowen, is a very frustrated man. His frustration comes from the slow speed of getting a work permit in Botswana.

He said yesterday that though Chinese companies are currently working on major projects worth over P2 billion in Botswana, it still takes a long and complex procedure to get a work permit. "If you are lucky, it takes three months to get a work permit. But on the other hand, time for the projects is very limited. The taxpayer ends up paying a lot of money for delayed projects," he said.

Xiaowen said that in addition, it is a hassle to find skilled labourer in Botswana. He said the few skilled workers available shy away from working long hours in construction sites. "Many people here don't want to work in construction sites," he said.

The ambassador was responding to remarks made by MPs recently that unskilled Chinese labourers are seen in every corner of the country doing work that Batswana can do. He said that all Chinese working in Botswana are skilled and they impart their skills to the locals. He said that it is regrettable that specialised skills such as grader operators, tower crane operators, and even carpenters, are not easily found in Botswana while the country requires that only foreign workers with degrees and higher qualifications can be imported.

In some instances, he said, the contractors find themselves very limited on the ground and this causes delays that impact badly on projects. He cited the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport upgrading (P400 million), Francistown Stadium (P200 million) and Dikgatlhong Dam (P1.4 billion) as projects that have been awarded to Chinese contractors, but are going through rough times because of delays in processing work permits. Media reports show that 43 Chinese nationals were arrested last week at Dikgatlhong Dam construction site because they did not have work permits.

"They had every legal document to be in Botswana, but they were waiting for the processing of their work permits. Which one was better - for them to wait in Beijing or to come here and wait at the site at the same time pushing the work?" Ding inquired. However, he was happy that the matter was resolved quickly and the workers were given temporary work permits. He said that he receives a lot of complaints from Chinese contractors in the country about shortage of skilled workers.

The Good Hope Secondary School is another project that left him wondering whether this country will ever move forward. "We went around the village looking for labourers but there were'nt enough skilled labour. We had to go to neighbouring and far away villages to get labourers, it was costly," he said. He stated that it is unreasonable for some people, especially MPs to think that Chinese contractors are importing unskilled labourers to Botswana. "It is expensive to bring a labourer here - skilled or not. But Batswana can learn a lot from our skilled people and later open their companies. Even China 20 years ago was flooded by Japanese electronics companies, but we learned their skills and today, we are able to produce quality goods that we sell to the world market," he said.

He denied accusations that the Chinese have taken over small businesses in the country reserved for locals. He acknowledged that there are some Chinese doing business in rural areas, but said it is good for competition and consumers. "If there is competition, the locals will improve their service delivery to the customers and they will work hard to be at the same level as the Chinese," he said. Ding revealed that since last year, his office had assisted over 2,000 Batswana retailers to travel to China to buy goods. "Even ordinary people have told me that a few years ago, they could not afford clothes for their children, television sets and others, but since the arrival of the Chinese, they can afford all these," he stated.

With the bad publicity that some Chinese companies have had in recent times, he said the local media is always biased towards foreigners. He said that trade disputes between Chinese companies and locals reach his office all the time and he carries out his own investigations. "What is reported in newspapers is most of the times different from what I hear," he said. ()

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