In the 21st century version of the scramble for Africa, the copper miners of Zambia are leading the resistance to a modern form of colonialism that is being driven from Beijing.
Copper exports are the lifeblood of Zambia, representing 75% of the total. Last year, Zambia’s exports into China hit a record high of $2.8 billion. Most of the government’s revenues are derived from the trade in the metal.
A Chinese state company owns and runs four copper mines in Zambia, supplying production enterprises back home dependent on the metal. And the mines are run in a ruthless fashion.
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch accused Chinese-run copper mines of breaking the law with poor health and safety conditions, hostility to trade unions and regular labour shifts of 12 and even 18 hours
Not only that, the companies have imposed Chinese-level wages on the workers at the mines, leaving many to complain that they are the worst employers in the country (there are Swiss and Canadian-owned mines too).
But they are fighting back following a change of government towards the end of 2011. Michael Sata was swept to power as president with working class support after promises to spread the benefits of Zambia’s mineral wealth, although he toned down previous anti-China rhetoric during the election campaign.
Sata’s election, however, led to renewed demands for wage increases and the management at the Chibuluma copper mine – one of the four Chinese plants – has just acceded to a 17% wage rise for 500 workers. While higher than the rate of inflation, it still leaves most workers having to work extraordinary hours to try and make ends meet.
Zambia’s dependence on inward foreign investment from China was reinforced yesterday when the two countries signed a new economic and technical agreement in Lusaka. To sweeten the path to exploiting the country’s resources, China is building a hospital and a football stadium in the capital for nothing.
None of this can disguise the reality of working conditions in the mines, however. A miner at one of the plants told HRW: "Sometimes when you find yourself in a dangerous position, they tell you to go ahead with the work. 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."
Another worker said: “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.”
Between October 5 and October 12, 2011, miners at three of the four Chinese-run copper mining operations began strike action, hopeful that the new government’s election would create an environment for improved conditions. Production ground to a halt.
The response was draconian. On October 19, Non-Ferrous China Africa, the longest-operating Chinese-owned copper mine, fired at least 1,000 striking workers. After government pressure, 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.
“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,” HRW Africa director Daniel Bekele said. “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.”
Some Zambian workers are surprised to hear that many Chinese miners in China aren’t treated much better. But resistance is growing in China too, bringing miners in different continents together against the same bosses.