When Confucian capitalism meets Batswana’s legendary laziness

13 May 2018

While they admit that the salaries they offer are not good, Chinese shopowners ‘continuously stress that the salaries are in line with government regulations’, ‘do not think the shop assistants deserve better pay’ and believe assistants are poor because they are ‘lazy and wasteful’

The thrice-dead cat prancing and preening about because it knows it has six lives left definitely need this reality check: some Batswana women whose daughters work for Chinese shops have many more lives.

“For so many years, only on payday can I find all of my shop assistants at work,” said CTco22, a 40-year old Chinese shopowner from Jiangxi province in China about his Batswana employees. “During Christmas, they will tell you that their mother died in order to get leave from work. Some of their mothers have died several times.”

As other Chinese shopowners (“merchants” is the term used) who were interviewed for this study, CTco22 is dissatisfied with the work ethic of his Batswana employees. As other 89 interviewees, he is tagged with such label to conceal his identity in order that he could speak freely about his relationship with his Batswana employees. That relationship is fraught with tension and has led to what Professor Monageng Mogalakwe of the University of Botswana and Yanyin Zi of The Center for African Area Studies at Kyoto University in Japan, refer to as a “toxic work environment” in an academic paper titled “Decoding Relationships Between Chinese Merchants and Batswana Shop Assistants: The Case of China Shops in Gaborone” that they collaborated on.

The paper identifies linguistic and cultural differences as the source of this tension. Batswana employees lack the “organisational commitment” which is one of the cornerstones of Confucian capitalism and the said differences make it extremely difficult for the two parties to establish interpersonal trust – another Confucian capitalism staple.

In Chinese-owned shops, organizational commitment and interpersonal trust are closely related to Chinese culture and its family business model, which can be traced to Confucian capitalism. The Confucianism in question is of “dedicated, motivated, responsible, and educated individuals with an enhanced sense of commitment and loyalty to institutions”. This is the philosophy that Chinese shopowners in Botswana consider “a key influence on their business values and expectations.”

“Chinese merchants judge the attitudes of their Batswana shop assistants according to Chinese values. CTbe10’s boss said, ‘People here are not like Chinese, who would be thankful for the job opportunity. Even now, I still need to beg her (CTbe10) to come to work, even though she has been here for seven years.’ Thus, CTbe10 expected more time off after so many years of hard work, while her employer expected her to be more committed on account of her years of experience,” the paper says.

One part of the reason why CTbe10 and her ilk are not thankful is because they consider such employment to be temporary.

“From the interviews, it appears that most of the employees want a job that will give them skills or better terms and conditions than the China shops,” Mogakalwe and Zi state. “There is a high employee turnover in China shops, and it is rare to find an employee who has been working in the same shop for more than two years. Many assistants work in the shops while looking for other employment or further education. When they find a better option, they leave. Theft and pregnancy also contribute to the high turnover rates, as well as a number of Batswana shop assistants who are fired for what their Chinese employers deem to be poor work ethics.”

As the interviews reveal, what the Chinese consider good work ethics entails going beyond and above call of duty: “The Chinese merchants usually have hectic schedules, particularly when running a larger shop, and they expect their local shop assistants to be active and helpful, as if working for their own business.” The high turnover rate means that the majority of Chinese shops lack experienced shop assistants and oftentimes veteran shop assistants are expected to work unremunerated overtime. Chinese merchants also expect unfailing and consistent obedience from their Batswana but often find that while initially “nice enough while they were still learning all the different tasks in the shop”, shop assistants become “cunning and disobedient” after a few months.

“One employer described how she had told her shop assistants not to text during work, but they had refused to comply and even tried to argue over this request,” the paper says.

The laundry list is not nearly complete: the Chinese feel that Batswana are “not humble enough to receive correction”, that they undermine them because they are foreigners with an infirm grasp on English, that shop assistants are “heartless or complain too much” and that reporting them to the Department of Labour and Social Security for withholding pay is “a form of betrayal.”

Batswana shop assistants have their own list of grievances about their Chinese employees that range from the frivolous to the serious. The most frivolous has to be that “there is no pride in working for a China shop because they only sell ‘cheap’ merchandise.” On serious issues, many local shop assistants said that their Chinese employers are “rude” to them, irritable on days when business is down, impose unusually strict rules (like “forbidding shop assistants to chat with each other at work”), exploit them by paying low salaries and embarrass them in front of fellow Batswana – customers in this case. With regard to the latter, it is not hard to imagine that some of those customers could be romantic prospects whose presence should induce a kind of vibe that doesn’t include embarrassment.

“Chinese merchants usually have fairly large shops, some in excess of 100 m2,” the authors say. “Because the merchants want to be in charge of the cash register, they do not typically leave the checkout counter. When communicating with their shop assistants, therefore, they may shout so that the assistants can hear them from anywhere in the shop. If there is background music playing, they need to shout even louder. The assistants find this harsh and off-putting. If an assistant makes a mistake, most Chinese merchants will not walk over to talk to the shop assistant privately if they can simply shout from where they are standing.”

The above provides a perfect segue into cash-register politics. In terms of a Chinese business practice called kan dian (minding the shop), a family member is always at the cash register for the reason that employees (who are not family members) cannot be trusted. From the look of it, even when an employer has the most honest employees, kan dian is enforced in all Chinese shops in Botswana and is evidently resented by the supposed thieves.

Botswana streets know Chinese shopowners as notoriously bad payers and while they would prefer a more merciful description, the latter actually concede this point.

“They continuously stress that the salaries are in line with government regulations. Moreover, many do not think the shop assistants deserve better pay. They believe that the poverty of the shop assistants is due to laziness and wasteful habits,” the paper says.

Returning to work after spells of playing hooky, female shop assistants typically sport “new hairstyles, freshly manicured nails, and new clothes, and it is clear that they have spent their time off shopping.”

The paper seeks to establish a link between low salaries and government policy. By encouraging entrepreneurship among local people and introducing tighter regulations, the government has set off “fierce competition” that makes the Chinese hesitant to invest too much in their shops.

“When their business permits expire, they look for other markets or prepare to return to China. Thus operating in survival mode, the merchants want to invest as little as possible in their shops, and keep salaries low,” it says.

The researchers reach the conclusion that “these problems are rooted in communication breakdowns and cultural differences, primarily differences in business practice. Chinese businesses practices, which are influenced by Confucian values emphasizing frugality and hard work, contrast greatly with Batswana shop assistants’ desires for instant gratification.”