November 3, 2011

Chinese mining firms under fire for mistreating workers

China’s relentless march into Africa in search of mineral resources has left a trail of labour, health and safety-related issues in the continent’s biggest copper producer. According to a report penned Human Rights Watch after conducting three field missions at Chinese-owned copper mines in Zambia in November 2010 and July 2011, four subsidiaries of China Nonferrous Metal Mining, a state-owned enterprise under the authority of China’s highest executive body, routinely flouted Zambian labour laws, safety regulations and legislation governing workers’ right to organise.

Human Rights Watch said miners were forced to work brutally long shifts, despite difficult conditions involving extreme heat and contact with acids and other chemicals. This was in defiance of Zambian President Michael Sata’s warnings to foreign companies to adhere to the country’s labour laws.

After he had been sworn earlier in 2011, Mr Sata, an outspoken critic of Chinese companies during his time as the leader of the Zambian opposition, said they needed to improve conditions for Zambian workers. "Foreign investment is important to Zambia and we will continue to work with foreign investors who are welcome in the country … but they need to adhere to labour laws," said Mr Sata.

Copper mining is an essential industry in Zambia, contributing 15% to 18% of gross domestic product (GDP), and is an important contributor – after the transport, storage and communications industries – to economic growth, according to the World Bank. Mining and quarrying grew at almost 9% per year in 2001-09, faster than overall GDP.
Many miners at Sino Metals, one of the subsidiaries of China Nonferrous Metal Mining, told Human Rights Watch they worked five 12-hour shifts a week, as well as a sixth 18-hour "change shift" when they rotated from the day shift to the night shift or vice versa. Other miners said they sometimes worked a whole year without a day off, and many complained about failing to receive proper overtime payments. Human Rights Watch said Zambian law specified a 48-hour work week, and other multinational copper-mining companies had eight-hour shifts to comply with the law. Between October 5 and 12 this year, miners at three of Zambia’s four copper-mining operations downed tools and brought production to a halt, hopeful that Mr Sata’s new government would pressure the mines to improve conditions.

But on October 19, Non-Ferrous China Africa (NFCA), the longest-operating Chinese-owned copper mine in Zambia, fired at least 1000 striking workers. It only agreed to reinstate the striking workers after pressure from the government. "Sometimes when you find yourself in a dangerous position, they tell you to go ahead with the work," an underground miner at NFCA told Human Rights Watch. "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 rights group said poor health and safety standards, including inadequate ventilation, failure to replace workers’ damaged protective equipment, and routine threats to fire workers who refused to work in unsafe places underground were causing injuries and other health complications. At times, Chinese managers bribe or threaten miners to keep them from reporting accidents or other problems to the government’s mining safety department, the miners reported. "Many of the poor health and safety practices we found in Zambia’s Chinese-run mines look strikingly similar to abuses we see in China," said Daniel Bekele, Africa executive director at Human Rights Watch. Several operations have prevented workers from exercising their right to join labour unions through threats and intimidation, hampering their ability to seek protection from exploitation and abuse.
Miners in companies run by Chinese and other multinationals also said companies retaliated against outspoken union representatives, docking their pay or refusing to renew their contracts. "Respecting labour laws and ensuring workers’ safety should be standard operating practice both in China and abroad, not treated as an irritating barrier to greater profits," Mr Bekele said.

At the end of October, Zambia suspended the issuance of new mining licences to root out potential corruption and "clean up" the process. "My ministry has with immediate effect and until further notice suspended the issuance of new applications, renewal and transfer of mining and non-mining rights," Wylbur Simuusa, mining minister, said. "During the suspension period, there will be an audit and clean-up of all mining and non-mining rights," he added.

In the meantime, China has reacted to the allegations. "Regrettably, the relevant contents of the report is not faithful to the truth," the Chinese embassy in Lusaka said 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 statement further said. "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," read the statement. (Business Day)

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