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Workers' rights

November 4, 2011

A new report by Human Rights Watch has revealed abusive employment conditions in Chinese–run copper mines in Zambia.

A Chinese construction worker supervise the building of a road
Workers in Chinese-run copper mines say they are underpaidImage: AP

A new report by Human Rights Watch has revealed that, while Zambians working in the country's Chinese–run copper mines welcome the substantial investment and job creation, they suffer from abusive employment conditions that fail to meet domestic and international standards. The report dubbed "you will be fired if you refuse labour abuses in Zambia's Chinese state owned copper mines," says miners at several Chinese-run companies spoke of poor health and safety standards.

Against the background of growing investment by Chinese companies across Africa during the last ten years, Human Rights Watch has been investigating what impact this has had on people working in such companies, in particular in copper mines in Zambia. Matt Wells is with the African Division of Human Rights Watch and presented the report in the Zambian capital Lusaka.

Labourers prepares the ground for a Chinese company to lay telecom cables
The health and safety of the workers are often neglectedImage: AP

Health and safety

He says the most important findings are "that the health and safety practices in Chinese run mines are quite concerning. They are much worse than the other copper mining companies in Zambia and there are lots of clear violations of Zambian and international laws. So you have Chinese managers who are forcing workers to work in unsafe places underground threatening to fire them if they refuse to proceed."

The President of the Federation of Free Trade Unions of Zambia Joyce Nonde Simukoko says health and safety issues in Zambia have been neglected by many foreign investors, not only Chinese nationals. "When people come from different countries like the Chinese we are talking about they see there are no effective laws, there are no effective standards and effective supervision, they relax, they don’t care whether people are killed or not."

The Chinese Ambassador to Zambia Zhou Yuxiao has defended Chinese Investment practices, saying regulations are observed: "With regard to labour issues, the Chinese government stands for win-win cooperation or mutually beneficial relations.

"It is the Chinese government's policy that Chinese companies should observe the law of the land and if they violate the law of the land, they are not doing wrongs to the people of the land but also damaging the image of China. So it is my job to make sure that Chinese companies follow the local law and in this case we have no differences at all and we can work together."

Low pay

Chinese workers build a wall at a housing project
Chinese companies discourage union activity in ZambiaImage: AP

However a worker at a Chinese mining firm in Zambia's copperbelt province, Kingsley Banda, says working conditions are deplorable. "The conditions are very harsh such that one cannot even develop in life. I get about 700,000 kwacha [about 150 US dollars] which includes transport and everything else you have to remove from the salary and housing."

Theresa Mumba works at another Chinese mine in Zambia's southern province. She has called on the Zambian government to come to the rescue of the workers. "These Chinese, they are paying me 50 dollars a month - how can I survive?"

The annual growth rate of bilateral trade between China and Zambia has remained above 30 percent since 2000. Last year, total bilateral trade topped 2.5 billion US dollars, a year-on-year increase of 97 percent, ranking third after South Africa and Britain.

Most Chinese investors discourage union activity – last year Chinese investors at the Collum Coal Mine in southern Zambia shot about 17 miners after they protested over poor working conditions.

Author: Kathy Sikombe
Editor: Susan Houlton

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