In a 122-page report, “‘You’ll Be Fired If You Refuse’: Labor Abuses in Zambia’s Chinese State-owned Copper Mines,” Human Rights Watch charges that despite improvements in recent years, safety and labor conditions at Chinese owned mines in Zambia are worse than at other foreign-owned mines, and that Chinese mine managers often violate government regulations. The report details persistent abuses at four Chinese-run mines, including substandard health and safety conditions, 12- to 18-hour shifts of strenous labor, and anti-union activities. The violations were based on interviews with more than 170 mine workers, from both the four Chinese-run companies and from other multinational copper mining operations. The Chinese companies are subsidiaries of China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corp., a state-owned enterprise.
An underground miner at Non-Ferrous China Africa, the longest-operating Chinese-owned copper mine in Zambia, told Human Rights Watch that workers were often forced to continue with their tasks even when faced with a dangerous situation. Miners reported extreme heat and inadequate ventilation, contact with acids and noxious chemicals, and failure to replace workers’ damaged protective equipment.
Complaints about Chinese business practices in Zambia stretch back years and often are pointed to as examples of problems with Chinese investors across Africa. In 2005, an explosion at a Chinese-owned factory in northern Zambia killed 51 Zambian workers. Last year, two Chinese managers were accused of shooting coal miners during a labor dispute. Months later, the mine agreed to pay compensation to 13 injured workers, and attempted murder charges against the managers were dropped.
Michael Sata, who won Zambia’s presidential elections in September, had for years played to nationalist and anti-Chinese sentiment in three past failed presidential bids. With copper prices booming, Sata toned down the rhetoric in his successful campaign, while still posing as a champion of the poor. “Sata’s stated commitments to protect workers’ rights are encouraging,” Human Rights Watch said. “But simply demanding that Chinese companies improve their practices is insufficient if not accompanied by more effective regulation of the mines.” (LAT, Zambia Watchdog, Nov. 3)
China‘s embassy in Zambia denied the charges in a statement: “China has for a long time been investing in Zambia on the basis of mutual benefits, creating a large amount of job opportunities, and making great contributions to Zambia’s social and economical development. The Chinese companies concerned have always been closely following the local laws and regulations, actively undertaking their social responsibilities. They attach great importance to employees’ legal rights, like safety, salary, and etc, and have taken serious measures to ensure the protection of those rights.” (UKZambians, Nov. 4)
Similarly harsh conditions were recently reported from Chinese-owned oilfields in Iraq.