- Apr 17, 2009
This indicates how China exploits the Africans and yet pretends that they are doing it only for the good of Africans.Zambian mine death puts China relations in spotlight
The death of a Chinese mine supervisor during a protest over wages at the Chinese-owned Collum coal mine in Zambia's Southern Province has brought the uneasy African-Chinese working relationship into the spotlight again.
This is not the first time the Collum mine has been the site of controversy, with a history of complaints and even gunfire. The Zambian government's response will now be watched closely.
Back in 2006, the Minister for Southern Province wept on national television saying workers were "kept like pigs" and "kicked and beaten as though they are not human beings" while working without safety equipment. Four years later in October 2010, a worker protest was met with indiscriminate gunfire into the crowd from Chinese managers. Charges against the culprits were subsequently dropped.
That was under a previous government. The current ruling party, the Patriotic Front led by Michael Sata, fought its way to power over the course of four elections by taking a hard line on labour abuses in foreign-owned industries – in particular the Chinese owned mines.
In previous campaigns, Sata threatened to throw Chinese traders out of the country. Anti-Chinese protests took place in both the mineral-rich Copperbelt province – where the majority of Chinese investment is concentrated – and in the capital, Lusaka.
Although Sata dropped the explicit anti-Chinese rhetoric in his successful 2011 election campaign for a more pragmatic focus on general investor responsibility he still typecast the incumbent president, Rupiah Banda, as corrupted by Chinese influence, and has been elected as an expected champion of the put-upon low-wage worker.
The incident highlights the competing pressures acting on the government from low-wage workers demanding a greater share of Zambia's mineral wealth and boisterous economic growth on the one hand, and on the other foreign investors with different expectations of appropriate labour relations.
The government's immediate reaction has been to represent the killing as an isolated incident rather than a variant of a long-running problem of animosity between workers and management in Chinese firms, with Minister of Labour Fackson Shamenda describing the perpetrators as "a bunch of criminals who took advantage of the disturbance."
Speaking to beyondbrics, Padraig Carmody, a specialist in Sino-Africa labour relations at Trinity College Dublin and author of The New Scramble for Africa, explains: "Sata wants to re-position Zambia towards the west, but has had to moderate his stance because China is so important to Zambia in terms of trade and investment. He appears very conscious of the need to be diplomatic – his first visitor after the election was the Chinese ambassador."
With the government estimating the total sum of Chinese investment in Zambia by the end of 2011 to be $2.4bn – around 20 per cent of GDP – China remains by far the most important economic partner for Africa's top copper producing nation.
China is similarly conscious of the need for a better public image in the country. Besides the huge investment into mines and infrastructure, it also funded a new national football stadium in the city of Ndola, which staged its first match in June.
The furore around labour relations in Zambia presents a different kind of challenge to the ones which Chinese mining companies are used to.
"When one or two people get hurt in Zambia it makes international news, but it has to be put in the context of Chinese labour regimes", Carmody says. "Official estimates are that 5,000 Chinese coal workers are killed every year, but some NGOs estimate it's up to 20,000."
"Labour conditions in Chinese-owned Zambian mines are reflective of similar conditions in domestic Chinese industry, with an attitude of 'go for growth first and worry about environment and labour safety later'," adds Carmody.
As beyondbrics reported last month, at the Forum on China Africa Cooperation in Beijing, the Chinese government announced a further $20bn of loans to Africa by way of demonstrating its commitment to its development. The casualties at Collum may be low compared with the Chinese mining industry, but they speak of the wider difficulties with China's efforts to charm the continent.
Zambian mine death puts China relations in spotlight | beyondbrics
Hypocrite and criminals.