Human Rights Watch Reports Abuses in Chinese-Run Mines in Zambia

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Zambian workers 580 meters below the ground in Luanshya Copper Mine run by the Chinese company China Non-Ferrous Metal Company, January 28, 2011. (Photo: Thomas Lekfeldt / Moment / Redux)

New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a 122-page report detailing the “abusive conditions” and lax safety standards of Chinese-run mines operating in the southern African nation of Zambia. Titled “You’ll Be Fired if You Refuse,” the report is one of the more targeted recent critiques of the effect of Beijing’s growing influence and presence around the world. A budding global superpower, Beijing has steadily expanded its energy concerns across the planet, acquiring mines and building pipelines from Africa to Latin America, Central Asia to Oceania. All four of the Chinese companies in question are state-owned. Speaking to an HRW observer, one Zambian worker at a Chinese mine summed up the imperatives at play behind the Asian giant’s investments in the copper-rich country:

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.

(READ: Workers of the world vs. China.)

China’s deep involvement in Zambia was already the subject of scrutiny this year. The country’s presidential elections this September were, in part, a referendum on China’s considerable foothold in the country. The victor, longtime opposition leader Michael Sata, had for years peddled a populist anti-Chinese line, claiming that Chinese investment turned Zambia into a neo-colonial state and benefited only a corrupt cadre of elites in cahoots with Beijing. Others point to the substantial revenues that have streamed into the country in recent years on the back of Chinese enterprise; this summer, the World Bank officially listed Zambia as a “middle-income” economy.

But the Human Rights Watch report, compiled on the basis of some 170 interviews conducted during three field assignments this year and last, paints a grimmer picture: workers in Chinese-run mines are forced to work grueling weekly shifts that violate Zambian labor law; miners are supplied with shoddy, insufficient equipment, which have led to accidents; Chinese managers pressure Zambian workers to toil in unsafe conditions and allegedly bribe workers to keep dissent under wraps; union organizers and members get intimidated and harassed by company officials.

Workers in three Chinese-run companies, hoping to capitalize on Sata’s electoral victory, commenced strikes for a week in October. But since Sata took over, he has softened his line on China, aware of the billions of dollars of Chinese investment promised to Zambia in the next few years. Officials from one Chinese mining firm have darkly warned they will “discipline” troublemakers. HRW says the blame can’t lie solely on Chinese companies and that it’s up to the Zambian government to enforce labor laws and mining regulations that already exist.

(READ: China’s new focus in Africa.)

The Sino-Zambian relationship is a microcosm of China’s engagement with the entire continent. Chinese engineers helped set up a vital railroad to Tanzania in the 1970s and the connection stuck. Now, Chinese interests include mines in the country’s Copperbelt — as much as 75% of Zambia’s GDP stems from copper exports — but also a whole range of retail and textile enterprises. Zambia is the first country to boast a RMB-issuing branch of Bank of China; bi-lateral trade between the two countries approached $3 billion in 2010.

But, as the HRW report makes clear, there’s a well-spring of bad feeling similar toward China and Chinese businesses in Zambia, who, claim interviewees, have led to the corruption of the political elite and certain ministries within the government. Still, avaricious mine-0wners don’t only exist in southern Africa. “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,” says Daniel Bekele, HRW’s Africa director. “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.” That’s an idealistic hope, especially at a time when China and other emerging powers are charging fitfully into a 21st century ripe with potential — yet still so prone to disaster.