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Africans Lash Out at Chinese Employers

October 06, 2006|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

MAAMBA, Zambia — Deep in the tunnel of the Collum mine, coal dust swirls thickly, and it's stifling for workers such as Chengo Nguni. He describes his $2-a-day job with a sigh: His supervisor yells incomprehensibly in Chinese. His rubber boots leak. The buttons to control the flow of ore out of the mine often deliver an electric shock.

But the worst thing about life in the Chinese-owned mine in southern Zambia is that there is no such thing as a day off. Ever.

When the government minister concerned with the region, Alice Simango, saw the conditions at the Collum mine, she wept on national television and accused the management of treating workers like animals, prompting the government to close the mine for three days in July.

China's hunger for raw materials and energy is driving new investment across Africa, with trade between China and the continent up more than 300% since 2000 to more than $40 billion a year. China is the main market for Sudan's oil. It has invested in Nigerian oil, provided oil-rich Angola with a $2-billion loan with easy terms and improved relations with Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwean regime, which is criticized by economists and human rights activists.

Critics say Chinese environmental and labor standards are often poor. In Ghana, environmentalists have accused Chinese oil company Sinopec of desecrating a national park.

In Zambia, there is a growing backlash over low wages and poor conditions in Chinese operations.

At the NFC Africa copper mine in Chambishi, a Chinese-owned operation in northeastern Zambia, hundreds of workers rioted in late July over reports that the management was reneging on a pay increase. Four were shot and wounded by Chinese employees of the company. Another was shot by police.

Like their counterparts at the Collum mine, the NFC workers rail against poor working conditions, low pay and lax safety standards. Last year, a blast at an NFC subsidiary explosives factory in Chambishi killed every worker on the site -- more than 50 people. NFC is a subsidiary of China's government-owned Chinese Non-Ferrous Metals Corp.

The growing resentment sparked an acrimonious debate in Zambia's recent presidential elections, with Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong making comments suggesting that Beijing might sever ties and investors might pull out if leading opposition candidate Michael Sata won the Sept. 28 vote.

Sata, who at one point threatened to expel Chinese traders if he became president, lost the election, and he alleged massive vote fraud. In the heat of the campaign, his Patriotic Front claimed that the use of Chinese computers to tally the count could skew results in the government's favor, an accusation strongly denied by Chinese Embassy officials.

Sata argued that most Chinese investors in Zambia were exploiters who brought the country no benefit. He accused Li of interfering in the election.

"I find the reaction by the Chinese government very childish and dictatorial," Sata said, accusing China of campaigning for the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy, which has been in power 15 years.

Critics say that safety standards in China's mines are among the worst in the world and that Chinese companies have exported low pay and hazardous conditions to Africa and elsewhere. But a manager at the Chambishi mine, Xu Ruiyong, strongly contested those accusations, saying the mine has one of the best safety records in the area.

The company recently reached an agreement with unions to bring pay scales at the mine into line with the national minimum wage. But workers contend that employees doing similar work at other mines are paid more.

For the miners toiling underground, submerged in their own bread-and-butter struggle, the debates seem remote.

"It's very little money," said Nguni, 25, describing his job at the Collum mine. "There are no leave days. These people are very stingy when it comes to money, even though we make a lot of profit for the mine. We are seen as nonentities. The mine management is just concerned about profit, not human life."

The people of Chambishi were pleased when Chinese investors took over a large copper mine in 1997 and reopened it as NFC Africa in 2003. Many state-owned mines, including the Chambishi operation, had failed in the early 1990s.

"But people got very frustrated because of the working conditions," said shop steward Angel Chama, 29. "At the moment in the mining industry, people are not happy with the Chinese investors. I think there's no hope unless the government gets really tough on these guys."

Albert Mando, general secretary of the National Miners and Allied Workers Union, said that before the pay deal was reached in July, the lowest-paid workers at NFC got $14 a month. Under the deal, that was increased to $68, roughly the country's minimum wage.

He said injuries were common and that workers were often afraid to complain because they were hired on one-year contracts and could easily be fired.

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