China in Zambia: Jobs or exploitation?
- 13 December 2010
- From the section Africa
Zambian miners at the Collum Coal Mine are furious with their Chinese bosses.
At least 11 miners were allegedly shot by two Chinese managers during a protest about poor conditions in October.
The long road leading up to the mine in the southern rural district of Sinazongwe is covered in black coal dust, but otherwise there is not a hint that the 21st Century has reached the area.
And this is what has angered the miners.
They feel that while the Chinese benefit from the mine and live comfortably, they remain in poverty often renting mud-walled huts lacking basic facilities.
"The salaries are a problem - we get 500,000 kwacha ($100; £63) a month but our rentals cost about 100,000 kwacha ($20; £13)," says miner Ngula Simukuka, who has a wife and four children to support in nearby Sinazeze township.
He says that there is also perception that the Chinese management has little concern for their workers' safety.
They lack face masks, safety shoes and in many instances wear their own clothes in the course of duty.
"The way we are working down there, it is very difficult because there is dust, but we don't even have things to protect us," Mr Simukuka says.
A Collum Mine official, however, dismisses these allegations.
"Every year we provide two sets of uniforms for workers but the problem is they go and give the uniforms to wives, uncles and other members of their families," the mine official says.
The nearby Sikalima stream is another cause of friction between the Chinese-run mine and the cattle-herding community in the area, who rely on it as a source of drinking water.
The stream now carries black sediment of waste coal which eventually flows into Lake Kariba.
One of the miners, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Chinese managers were in the habit of bragging that they could get away with anything because they were in the government's good books.
Such has been the hostility between the two sides that the government has stepped in to negotiate better conditions as well as compensation for the miners who were shot.
When Elijah Muchima, minister for the area, recently visited the mine, the workers turned out in force to greet him.
As he went in to hold a meeting with the mine management, they waited outside.
The minister put on a show of talking tough.
"We are sick and tired of this mine," Mr Muchima said. "Why should it be the only mine that is troublesome?"
Inside, there were heated exchanges as he sat down opposite Collum Coal Mine Director Xu Jian Rui.
Mr Xu and his delegation looked uncomfortable.
"You are using labour and you should pay for it adequately," Mr Muchima said.
"Your investment is important but our labour is more important.
"If you find that business is not profitable, close it down. Other people will come.
"If it's not profitable, go away. If it's not profitable, you would not have been here for nine years."
He may not have minced his words, but the beaded sweat on Mr Muchima's brow conveyed the awkwardness of his situation.
Last year China invested more than $400m (£250m) in Zambia's mining industry, which is one of the major employers in the private sector.
So a balance needs to be struck between attracting investment and protecting the interests of the locals.
Mr Xu and his team could have responded angrily to Mr Muchima, but instead they adopted apologetic expressions - seeming to understand his position.
The mine director attributed his company's poor pay to problems it faces in marketing its coal.
"Our clients are mainly Zambian copper mines but sometimes they import coal from Zimbabwe," Mr Xu said, speaking through an interpreter.
Collum currently produces an average of 150,000 metric tonnes of coal, which earns the mine up to $6m (£4m) a year.
Under the government's brokerage, a temporary wage deal was struck until negotiations between the mine and the workers' union conclude.
Miners will now get a minimum of $90 (£57) a month, but will also be entitled to monthly housing and transport allowances totalling $57 (£36).
When the minister emerged from the meeting to tell the gathered workers of the agreement, there was applause and clapping.
This and the trial of the two Chinese managers for attempted murder, which has been adjourned until January, may go some way to improving the situation.
And as one miner, Chipo Gandula, told me, the families of the victims of the shooting may be willing to forgive - if the right amount of compensation is paid.