It’s not a good time to be a Zambian miner in a Chinese-run mine, according to the Human Rights Watch report released on Wednesday, which outlines systematic human rights violations which are a serious threat to the safety of workers. But this might be about to change if the new government of Michael Sata makes good on his pro-people rhetoric. By SIMON ALLISON.
There are four Chinese-run mining corporations in Zambia, operating in that country’s lucrative Copperbelt. Mining copper, naturally. They are all subsidiaries of the China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corporation, a state-owned and run company, and they’re all guilty of gross human rights violations, according to a damning new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW).
This doesn’t come as a huge surprise. Chinese companies have a less than stellar record in terms of observing workers’ rights, and have a particularly poor reputation in Africa. This latest report will help confirm that reputation. HRW outlines systematic disregard for safety guidelines, a determined effort to marginalise unions and a suspiciously cozy relationship with Zambia’s previous administration led by Rupiah Banda, which was somewhat surprisingly defeated in elections this September by new President Michael Sata.
The stories that emerge from the report are chilling. “Sometimes when you find yourself in a dangerous position, they tell you to go ahead with the work,” said one underground miner interviewed in the report. “They just consider production, not safety. If someone dies, he can be replaced tomorrow. And if you report the problem, you’ll lose your job.”
The report describes how interviewees would talk about the “special relationship” between Banda’s government and China. Matthew Wells, HRW’s Africa Researcher and key author of the report, clarified this in an interview with iMaverick. “For the miners, they would often say that the government didn’t have their back, was on the side of the investor whenever a dispute arose. They raised allegations of corruption, of government officials who would go into the companies and receive gifts… You saw this in public statements from the Banda government, workers said they would push hard on working conditions, but the ministry concerned would say for every one of you in here, there are nine people seeking employment, so stop complaining.”
It’s tempting to cast the Chinese as the bad guys here, particularly given their appalling record on workers’ rights in their own country. But Wells argues that the Chinese corporations will operate within whatever limits are set by the host government, and, in this case, it’s up to the Zambian authorities to enforce the laws that they already have. “It’s clear [the Chinese mining companies] are concerned about their perception; how they look abroad matters. It goes back to the host government to make sure their labour norms are enforced, if they are enforced regularly we may see these companies improve their practices. It’s when countries don’t enforce their laws that we see problems.” The issue, in other words, is not so much with Chinese companies, who will stretch the laws as far as they will go, but with countries that let their laws be stretched.
But things are already looking different under the new administration of Michael Sata. Sata has historically been virulently against the Chinese presence in Zambia, although he toned down his rhetoric somewhat during his most recent campaign. But once in office, he was quick to issue a stern warning to the mining companies to obey Zambian law, and he’s already backing this with action. Last month, a two-week strike in the Chinese-run Chambishi mine ended when fired workers received their jobs back and a pay rise, largely thanks to pressure from the Sata government. “Everything that’s been said so far by Sata has sent the right signals,” said Wells. “Labour laws will be applied, companies will no longer be able to exploit workers, companies will have to abide by Zambian laws. It will be really interesting over next few months, in negotiations over conditions for 2012, to see whether these are meaningless words or if they do result in changed practices.”
A recent meeting between Sata and a Chinese business delegation showed that the president will continue to welcome a Chinese presence in Zambia, but only on his terms. “I used to criticise you [China] and said I would sort you out, but now I want to use you to help our people,” he told the delegation. At the same meeting, the Chinese government envoy advised the Chinese business community to “act within the law” and avoid doing anything that could tarnish China’s image.
It’s too late for that. As the HRW report demonstrates, China’s image is already tarnished. But, if the Zambian government can successfully push for compliance with its laws, they might be able to go some way towards changing this. DM
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