MAC: Mines and Communities

Zambia: Workers detail abuse in Chinese-owned mines

Published by MAC on 2011-11-14
Source: Human Rights Watch

Zambia: Workers Detail Abuse in Chinese-Owned Mines

Enforce Health, Safety, and Labor Laws in Copper Mining Industry

Human Rights Watch

3 November 2011

Lusaka – Chinese-run copper mining companies in Zambia routinely flout labor laws and regulations designed to protect workers’ safety and the right to organize, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Zambia’s newly elected president, Michael Sata, a longtime critic of the Chinese labor practices, should act on his campaign promises to end the abuse and improve government regulation of the mining industry to ensure that all companies respect Zambia’s labor laws.

Zambian copper workers
Zambian copper workers Photograph: Salim Henry/Reuters

The 122-page report, "'You'll Be Fired If You Refuse': Labor Abuses in Zambia's Chinese State-owned Copper Mines," details the persistent abuses in Chinese-run mines, including poor health and safety conditions, regular 12-hour and even 18-hour shifts involving arduous labor, and anti-union activities, all in violation of Zambia's national laws or international labor standards. The four Chinese-run copper mining companies in Zambia are subsidiaries of China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corporation, a state-owned enterprise under the authority of China's highest executive body. Copper mining is the lifeblood of the Zambian economy, contributing nearly 75 percent of the country's exports and two-thirds of the central government revenue.

"China's significant investment in Zambia's copper mining industry can benefit both Chinese and Zambians," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "But the miners in Chinese-run companies have been subject to abusive health, safety, and labor conditions and longtime government indifference."

The report is based on research conducted during three field missions in November 2010 and July 2011 and draws on more than 170 interviews, including with 95 mine workers from the country's four Chinese copper operations and 48 mine workers from other multinational copper mining operations. Miners at Chinese-run firms said they were pleased that the companies had made a substantial investment in the copper mines and created jobs. But they described abusive employment conditions that violate national and international standards and fall short of practices among other multinational copper mining companies in the country.

"Sometimes when you find yourself in a dangerous position, they tell you to go ahead with the work," an underground miner at Non-Ferrous China Africa (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."

Between October 5 and October 12, 2011, miners at three of the four Chinese-run copper mining operations initiated strikes, hopeful that the new government's election would create an environment for improved conditions. Production ground to a halt. On October 19, Non-Ferrous China Africa, the longest-operating Chinese-owned copper mine, fired at least 1,000 striking workers. After government pressure in subsequent days, NFCA agreed to reinstate them. Reuters reported that NFCA's chief executive officer said that the reinstated workers would be screened and the "troublemakers" disciplined.

Miners from the Chinese-owned companies described consistently poor health and safety standards, including inadequate ventilation that can lead to serious lung diseases, the failure to replace workers' damaged protective equipment, and routine threats to fire workers who refuse to work in unsafe places underground. These practices, combined with the already dangerous nature of copper mining, cause 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 Mines Safety Department, the miners said.

"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," Bekele said. "Respecting labor laws and ensuring workers' safety should be standard operating practice both in China and abroad, not treated as an irritating barrier to greater profits."

In addition to their poor safety standards, several Chinese-run copper operations in Zambia require miners to work brutally long shifts, despite difficult conditions involving extreme heat and contact with acids and noxious chemicals. Many miners at Sino Metals work five 12-hour shifts a week as well as a sixth 18-hour "change shift" when they rotate from the day shift to the night shift or vice versa. Other miners there described working 365 days without a single day off. Zambian law specifies a 48-hour work week, and every other multinational copper mining company uses 8-hour shifts that comply with this law. Several miners said the long hours contributed to accidents, and many complained about failing to receive proper overtime.

The curtailment of union activity hampers the ability to address these and other issues of concern to workers - particularly pay, which is higher than Zambia's monthly minimum wage, but much lower than that paid by other multinational copper mining firms in Zambia. Several Chinese-run operations have prevented workers from exercising their right to join the labor union of their choice through threats and intimidation. Miners in companies run by the Chinese or other multinationals also described retaliation against outspoken union representatives, including docked pay or refusal to renew their contracts.

China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corporation provided a detailed reply to a Human Rights Watch letter summarizing the report's main findings, which is annexed to the report.

While there have been improvements on many labor issues since the Chinese companies first started operations in 2003, they still fail to meet the standards of both labor law and their multinational competitors in Zambia's copper industry, Human Rights Watch said. Miners now periodically receive personal protective equipment, which previously was not provided systematically or in its entirety. But the equipment is still generally not replaced when damaged during work, leading to unnecessary accidents and health problems. After years of pressure from the unions and government, first aid kits and ambulances have been added to respond to serious injuries - though workers said first aid kits taken underground are often incomplete because managers are careless about safety.

"Recent improvements show that Chinese companies will abide by labor laws when the Zambian government fulfills its responsibility to protect workers' rights," Bekele said. "But while Zambia's mining laws are strong on paper, the government has failed to enforce them."

Primary responsibility for ensuring that Zambia's copper mining companies operate in accordance with national and international standards rests with the Zambian government. It has a Mines Safety Department within the Ministry of Mines and Minerals Development that is responsible for enforcing the country's mining regulations, including on health and safety.

However, the department is understaffed, underfunded, and accused by miners of being corrupt - leaving it almost wholly ineffective. It performs virtually no proactive inspections and because of budget constraints, at times requires companies that are to be investigated to pay for transportation and other costs. The fines it is allowed to impose are so low that they have almost no deterrent effect, Human Rights Watch said.

The Labor Ministry has routinely endorsed collective bargaining agreements containing provisions that conflict with Zambian and international labor law. It has also failed to take action against companies that commit prejudicial acts against union representatives.

"Rather than simply blame Chinese-run firms, President Sata needs to ensure that his government is effectively protecting workers' rights," Bekele said. "More stringent measures are needed against all companies that flout labor laws and mining regulations."

Personal Accounts

On health and safety, a boom operator at NFCA's underground copper mine:

We are working in very bad conditions, horrible conditions. After a blast, it takes an hour for the dust, gases, and fumes to move out of the area. We're supposed to wait to go in. But with the Chinese, they say, "Go, go, rush right away!" And if you don't, they'll terminate your contract. So we go straight into an area full of fumes and dust.. The doctor said that these gases have caused my ulcers and chest pain.

On health and safety,an underground drill operator at NFCA:

One day we had already [drilled] past where the support stopped, and I didn't think it was safe to go farther without building more support. When I got my next paycheck I saw that I was marked absent. When I confronted the Chinese boss about it, he yelled at me and said I didn't do my job. And he told me to quit. I'm worried now that when my contract comes up, they won't renew me. So in the future, I'll just have to go ahead with the work, no matter how unsafe. Otherwise I'll lose my job.

On health and safety, a "casual" (temporary worker) at Sino Metals, referring to the company's requirement that casuals provide their own protective equipment:

The Chinese bosses don't give us respirators or hard hats - nothing. We must provide our own safety equipment or go without. I have had chest pain, head pain, yet I don't have medical care with the company either. There is no PPE for casuals. The national union has been written [about this], but nothing has been done.. It's so bad that, when Rupiah [former President Banda] came to the plant in March [2011], they put us in a room and locked it.. I heard later that some other casuals had been told to stay home that day. But we were there at the plant. And they took us into a room and locked it while the president was there, to keep us out of his sight.

On hours at work, a miner who works in the leach pad at Sino Metals:

It's difficult to handles these hours. We work 12 hours a day, five days, and 18 hours on the day of the change shift. It's very tiring.. And we never get a break; they say it's a continuous operation, so no break. It's very tough. If we eat, we have to while we work, or have a friend cover for a few minutes. There are times where you're just so tired. And after transport to and from work, it's 14 hours at least. My life is only my work here.

Overtime is supposed to be four hours every day. But it doesn't make sense in terms of the pay.. Last month I received less than 200,000 [Kwacha, or US$42] for overtime. Yet I put in 30 hours of overtime every week! They don't tell us how they calculate this, they refuse.. Our hours are too long for the pay we receive.

On anti-union activities, a union representative at Sino Metals:

The Chinese don't understand the concept of a union. They intimidate those that lead or are part of a union. If they know you're a representative, you'll encounter problems, they'll try to frustrate you until you leave the job.

On anti-union activities, a union representative at NFCA:

Several times I've been harassed and intimidated because of my union ties. I was forcibly transferred [to another department] . much farther from where meetings are organized and held.. [Several months later], they charged me for attending a meeting, which is directly against the law. The manager claimed that I did not have permission from the immediate supervisor, even though I had received it.. My supervisor said the instructions came from above . that the Chinese manager "insisted that I charge you." I could be fired for the next [charge], so it is a way to keep me from my union duties. The Chinese don't give any respect to the union, they see us as enemies.

For the full report, go to

China's Harsh Squeeze in Zambia's Copper Belt


10 November 2011

A tense link between a copper mine strike and Zambia's new president is troubling Chinese companies

A rhetorical U-turn by Zambia's new President Michael Sata recently brought at least some relief to Chinese investors rattled by strikes and his anti-China campaign speeches.

But Chinese companies in Sata's resource-rich country - including mining, power plant and construction concerns - remain seriously challenged in the face of Zambia's fluid business conditions, labor relations, public sentiment, and an awkward political environment.

"My dear Chinese brothers and sisters, Zambia welcomes you," Sata declared at an October 26 luncheon in Lusaka for more than 100 Chinese business leaders. "Because we are all-weather friends."

For several months before the luncheon, and during his successful campaign, Sata's harsh criticism of Chinese businesses put investors on edge. His outspokenness strained executive nerves at hydroelectric plant builder Sinohydro Group, general contractor Jiangxi International and several mining companies with Zambian investments worth billions of yuan.

Fresh in mind at the luncheon was an acrimonious, two-week strike by workers at a copper mine owned by NFC Africa Mining Corp., a subsidiary of government-owned China Nonferrous Metal Corp., that had ended just a week before.

Today, Sata calls himself a friend of Chinese business. He's also promised to work with Chinese investors to boost economic development in his country all through his five-year presidential term.

Some Chinese business leaders working in Zambia and interviewed by Caixin say they're not entirely sold on Sata's apparent change of heart. Yet for now, they're willing to stay in Zambia. They're also trying to ascertain the president's - and his people's - true attitudes toward Chinese companies.

And in the wake of the latest NFCA strike, every foreign mining company in Zambia is now waiting to see whether Sata will adjust the nation's labor laws, minimum wages, corporate taxes and state shareholdings in ways that affect their bottom line.

Caixin also interviewed Sata for his views on how Zambia can balance economic development and foreign investment. He hinted that Chinese companies may not be permanent fixtures in his country.

"We do not possess some specific skills, for which we need help from foreigners," he replied. "At the same time, we're eager to become self-reliant.

"If you understand that African education is still very backward, this is not a question of a choice between foreigners or self-reliance," the president said. "If we can do it ourselves, there is no need for foreigners."

Copper Crisis

The October walkout at NFCA's Chambishi mine by about 2,000 workers was the longest ever for a Chinese company in Zambia, and came at a time of political tension following Sata's inauguration. The antagonism between the unionized miners and company managers was so great that it pulled the new president into the fray.

Sata was elected September 22 after he stoked Zambian hostility toward Chinese investment throughout his campaign. Indeed, he ran on a platform that openly opposed Chinese investment, and called for improved working conditions at Chinese-owned businesses.

So emotions were running high when the Chambishi miners struck, demanding higher pay and better conditions. NFCA and miners' union officials told Caixin the strike broke out without warning.

NFCA executives were uncertain about what to expect next, given the political climate. They felt like "a lone boat on the ocean being tossed about in a fierce storm," said a company insider. "An extreme situation could have occurred at any moment.

"We prepared for the worst - being expelled from Zambia - in which case all the money invested over the years would be gone."

NFCA, China's biggest miner in Zambia, has sunk about US$ 1.4 billion into its copper facilities - an amount that eclipses all other Chinese financial interest in this landlocked country. Since 1964, when Zambia won independence, some 300 Chinese concerns have invested a total US$ 2 billion.

The company bought Chambishi for US$ 80 million in 1998, and to date has earned about US$ 200 million, all of which the company says it has reinvested at the site.

Industry sources said China indirectly or directly is the final destination for most of Zambia's copper output, which totaled about 800,000 tons last year. Zambia is Africa's largest and the world's fourth-largest copper-producing country.

The Chambishi purchase 13 years ago was the first overseas non-ferrous metal mine buyout approved by the Chinese government. NFCA started work at the site in 2000, and three years later started churning out ore. The company expects to produce 25,000 tons this year.

The operation turned profitable in 2005, following a US$ 160 million investment. The company plans to invest another US$ 800 million at a neighboring pit.

On the 12th day of the strike, NFCA management announced that Chambishi workers who refused to return that day would be dismissed. They were also given 48 hours to appeal if they want to return to the job.

NFCA Chairman Tao Xinghu said the threat was designed to get workers back into the pits as quickly as possible.

According to management and the union, the strike was technically illegal. Zambian law says the two sides can negotiate new contract terms within three months of an old contract's expiration.

But the Chambishi workers struck before contract talks start, demanding a monthly salary hike of about 2 million kwacha, or about US$ 400, from the current average US$ 334. Moreover, according to a worker, NFCA management pledged last March to improving working conditions, but took no action.

On October 11, Zambian Mines Minister Wylbur Simuusa began mediating the dispute on behalf of the new president. That led to an agreement signed by two union officials - the chairman and general manager of the Mining Worker Union for Kitwe City - and NFCA President Wang Chunlai.

The union promised all workers would return by October 22, and Chambishi's managers promised reinstatements for all. After that, a cooling-off period began during which the two sides were to negotiate salaries.

Many workers were still angry when they returned to work after the strike. They complained Chinese mining companies pay less than others in Zambia, and are run by arrogant, stubborn managers who refuse to listen to dissatisfied workers.

Yet if NFCA would meet all the strikers' demands, the Chambishi workers would be the highest-paid in the industry in Zambia. Wang says that would be unreasonable, given that the mine's ore grade is about 2 percent - below grades found at other mines, which makes extracting from Chambishi costlier.

Wang said Zambia's largest copper miner, Indian-owned Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), averages 20 tons per worker a year, for example, while Chambishi gets only about 70,000 tons.*

The strike was the third at an NFCA facility so far this year. Earlier disputes occurred in January and March. Altogether, the company said, it's lost one month's production this year, costing about US$ 16.8 million.

Anti-Chinese Slogans

Management wants workers to come to grips with the reality of business conditions for Chinese copper mine companies. In Wang's eyes, that means they should accept the company's pay offer.

"Zambia has several dozen mining companies," said Wang. "Our production scale is fifth in the industry, and our salaries are at mid-level, corresponding to our position in the industry." He noted that KCM's average wage exceeds US$ 600 a month.

Wang said NFCA is still investing in its Zambian operations and cannot afford to pay workers as much as other foreign mining companies. Yet he admits the dispute seems to be about more than wages.

Some strikers shouted anti-Chinese slogans on the picket lines. Others demanded dismissals for Chinese managers, or that NFCA should get out of their country altogether.

NFCA was not the only Chinese company hobbled by labor strife in recent weeks. In September, for example, short-term walkouts were held at Jiangxi International and Sinohydro worksites.

Some industry insiders say these labor issues have been politicized amid Zambia's changing political situation. Sata's campaign speeches were peppered with anti-Chinese, anti-Indian, anti-Lebanese rhetoric. Indian and Lebanese companies have also invested heavily in Zambia.

Sata once claimed that if elected president, he would expel all Chinese investors. He also campaigned on a promise of "more work and tax cuts, so there is more money in your pocket." It was a slogan that apparently made a deep impression on the public mindset.

While the fledgling Sata government has yet to propose a specific policy path for labor, or push for raising the minimum wage and updating labor laws, the nation's workforce seems eager to act, particularly at Chinese job sites.

"Chinese people pay the lowest wages," one mine worker told Caixin. He linked these arguably depressed salaries to speculated corruption involving Chinese businesses and the administration of the nation's former president, whom Sata replaced, Rupiah Banda.

"In the past, there was a good relationship between China and the Banda government," he said. "The Banda government was corrupt and didn't listen to us. Now Sata has come to power, and he will help us get back what we deserve."

Meanwhile, Chinese company managers are quick to complain about Zambian workers, labeling them inefficient, lazy, unskilled and disloyal. They also fault them for being unwilling to accept performance-based pay that includes penalty clauses. Zambian workers are aware of these complaints.

"We are badly in need of work," said another miner. "But just because you give us work doesn't mean you can exploit us like slaves. Why would we want a job that doesn't pay enough to support ourselves?"

An NFCA executive mused that Chinese companies in Zambia will not find China-like business and labor conditions. And that's troublesome for some managers.

"The Chinese way doesn't work here, and copying it will make trouble." he said. "But I still don't know how to improve labor productivity."

Chinese companies in Zambia are also challenged by communications issues involving their headquarters bosses back home. Some struggle to explain the business environment to people who've never worked in Africa.

"We can't apply Chinese standards when making demands of Zambian workers," said another NFCA executive. "But headquarters uses Chinese standards to make demands of us.

"We've had several strikes this year, but production targets from headquarters have not changed. When we look at the striking workers outside the window, we get very anxious."

By staff reporters Shen Hu and Han Wei in Zambia


* Note: According to KCM (majority-owned by Vedanta Resources plc) it employs 9,500 full-time, and 11,000 contract workers at its Zambian mines

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