Hard Labour - Poor Conditions at Chinese Firms

In Zambia, there is serious disquiet relating to how workers are treated. A trend towards casualisation raises concerns about the insecurity of labour, and has been a point of political contestation. There are concerns about the treatment of local staff by their Chinese managers, who are perceived to have used the vulnerability of workers to ignore their rights and entitlements.

Claude Kabemba's picture

Director of the Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW)

October 10th, 2012

In Zambia, there is serious disquiet relating to how workers are treated. A trend towards casualisation raises concerns about the insecurity of labour, and has been a point of political contestation. There are concerns about the treatment of local staff by their Chinese managers, who are perceived to have used the vulnerability of workers to ignore their rights and entitlements. Thus at the CCCM mine, where the labour force has grown since 2002 from 60 to approximately 421 people, local sources said that the real size of the workforce was probably around 900 because many workers were recruited on short-term contracts. Employees interviewed said that they were very concerned about their job security, as they are hired and fired at will.

Since its establishment, this company has been closed down five times, largely because of non-conformity to mine safety rules and poor sanitation. The most recent closures were in December 2009, following two visits by the Mines Safety Department, which discovered that the mine was not adhering to mine safety and health regulations, resulting in an outbreak of cholera (a water-borne disease) due to poor sanitary conditions. There was industrial unrest by workers who decided to go on strike demanding improved conditions of service and improvements in safety at the mine. Our findings were that employees are paid between K300 000 (US$65) and K500 000 (US$110). The mine owners note that they are not breaking the law because these rates are above the minimum wages of K268 000 per month set by the Zambian government, but the consequence is that the workers are not in a position to feed their families. And, because these salaries are below the taxable bracket, the company does not remit pay-as-you-earn tax and its contribution to national tax revenues is thus reduced. The management continues to cite low prices and poor demand as the reasons why it cannot increase employees’ wages, but wages do not change in boom times. When there is an increase in wages, it is always under pressure. For example, when President Michael Sata won the election in 2011, all Chinese companies gave their Zambian employees a surprise salary increase. This was particularly experienced at the Chinese owned Chambishi Copper Mine, where local employees received two different paychecks.  Sata, when in opposition, was critical of Chinese companies and promised to close most of the companies once elected because of their poor human rights records.  It looks like Chinese companies had prepared for any outcome of the election by printing two pay slips for the month of September 2011. It appeared that had the now opposition Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) won the Presidential election, the status quo would have prevailed but because the opposition Patriotic Front led by Michael Sata won the election an increase was effected.  The sudden pay raise at Chambishi Copper Mine is perhaps a belated effort for Chinese mine operators to burnish their image, an image that has been tarnished by abuse treatment and violence against Zambian employees.

Most of the miners revealed that there are no leave days, accusing the mine owners of focusing on making profits in disregard for human life. During the study it was further observed that CCCM was employing boys who are 12 years old to operate underground, which is in conflict with Zambian laws and contravenes the International Labor Organisation (ILO) principles of child labour. This was visible at shafts two and three.

As the plant closures suggest, CCCM has a poor record on protecting the safety and health of its workers. Employees have been working without protective equipment. The drainage and sanitation system is very poor, and most of the cholera patients in the Sinazongwe District, come from Nkandabwe, where the mine is situated. According to laboratory results, the water is contaminated and the shafts have no toilets for the workers. The district Health Subcommittee of the Sinazongwe District Development Coordinating Committee, has tried to devise mechanisms for preventing water-borne diseases like cholera without the involvement of the mining company.

In 2006, the Mine Safety Department shut down CCCM because it was found that miners had been forced to work underground without safety clothing or boots. It was later reopened after management positively responded to some of the concerns raised, but little progress was made. The mine was subsequently closed in 2008 and 2009 for the same reasons. Miners interviewed for the study say that they work with unsatisfactory protective clothing, while others are compelled to provide their own. They bemoaned the absence of safety inspections and periodical medical check-ups. The mine owners do not, they say, subject employees to the statutory annual medical examinations.

At another Chinese-owned firm, Luanshya Copper Mines (LCM) Chinese workers appear to be receiving treatment which locals do not. Our findings suggest that the company favours Chinese employees. Although we could not obtain the comparative statistics, information gathered suggests that for the same kind of job done by a local and a Chinese employee, a Chinese staff member is being paid three times more than a Zambian. Besides this, most local staff (especially in management positions) have been subordinated to their Chinese counterparts during the reorganisation process. LCM has created two positions in most of the management and strategic positions, with the local person becoming a deputy. Examples of skills and knowledge transfer in such arrangements are rare, with interviewees seeing the process as one in which the Chinese access as much information as possible to render the deputies irrelevant. Some suggested that it is a strategic position of the Chinese owners to pretend that they have an integrative approach to the management of the mines which includes locals – but that in practice this is not the case because decision-making is by the Chinese, and (increasingly) communication is in the Chinese language, disadvantaging most of the local staff.

In Angola, where there is no Chinese company operating directly in the extractive industry, the approach of Chinese companies can be best assessed by focusing on their construction activities. According to the CEIC (Research Centre of Catholic university), where more than 130 Angolan workers who work for three different Chinese companies were interviewed, the overall working conditions in Chinese companies are poor. Almost all workers lacked individual protection items (such as helmets, boots, and gloves). Asked why they work under those conditions, they answered that the companies they work for do not provide better conditions, and that they were required to buy protective clothing for themselves.

Most of those interviewed suggested that they are working for Chinese companies because these do not require any documents, which means that the only requirement is the desire to work. In Western-owned companies, workers require many documents to secure employment. As it is extremely difficult to obtain documents, many young people who cannot work for western companies seek employment in Chinese companies as an alternative. The labour market is unable to meet the strong demand for jobs, so even people with documents prefer to spend time with Chinese enterprises rather than staying at home doing nothing. All those interviewed were unanimous in saying that it was a ‘biscato’ working for Chinese managers – temporary work, only to have extra money, while a person looks for a better job. Chinese companies in the construction industry generate only temporary employment, which may end at any moment. There is no security or stability. At one company workers received between US$1,50 and US$2 per day for lunch. With this money they buy bread and a soft drink, if the money is sufficient.

Here, the complaint that the firms rely on Chinese rather than local labour seems justified. An estimated 80 000 Chinese expatriates are working in the country, mainly on construction projects. The Angolan government requires Chinese companies to sub-contract 30 percent of any project to local companies, and to employ local workers. But, according to the Chinese Ambassador to Angola, Chinese companies have been unable to achieve the 30 percent requirement. Chinese businesses complain that Angolan workers are not skilled enough and demand higher wages than Chinese workers. Given the tight building schedules and project completion deadlines, Chinese companies have been reluctant to hire local workers. Transport of building materials is often undertaken by Chinese drivers, although Angolans could easily be employed to do this. Chinese companies do not engage in joint venture partnerships with Angolan companies to strengthen local corporations and facilitate technology and skills transfers.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, conditions of work in Chinese companies are generally harsh. Here the claim that local workers are expected to work under the same conditions as those in China seems to be accurate. In the two companies visited, the Chinese personnel were found busy at work in the same conditions as the Congolese. The research team was told a story of a company called Magma Mining which used to let its Congolese employees sleep with the minerals in the store rooms (the company has now closed). Chinese managers have refused to accept the presence of worker’s unions in their installations. For example, the best performer, CDM, took three years before it would allow some labour union activities in its facilities.

Chinese companies pay their Congolese workers very poorly. They were forced to accept the minimum international guarantee salary (SMIG) of US$100 by the governor of the province. But the SMIG itself is inadequate, and does not correspond to the market. A Chinese firm, FEZA mining, has refused to pay workers above the SMIG." name="_ednref" title="">[v] Here, the Chinese companies lag behind the Western companies in the area (TFM for example). All the workers in Chinese companies complained about poor salaries and conditions. At FEZA, for example, salaries vary between US$132 and US$500 per month (an average of US$316). This includes:

  • healthcare: the employees and their families benefit from care (judged by the employees to be of quite good quality) at the ASVIE centre managed by a local NGO;
  • housing allowances: FEZA pays 60 percent of the standard city rental, which is US$17.24 per month;
  • family allocation, which is calculated with the index of 112 Congolese francs per day, equivalent to 2900 Congolese francs (US$3,2) per month per child.

FEZA is a reflection of most Chinese companies. The toilets are dirty, with water running continuously for lack of maintenance. A visit to another Chinese company, CDM, left our research team impressed by the infrastructure and good order that was prevailing. We were refused interviews, but the outside impression suggested that the company was behaving responsibly towards its workers. Congolese NGOs, however, argued that this external impression is misleading, and that working conditions at CDM are no different from other Chinese companies: contract negotiations are never concluded, so the Congolese end up working without contracts, and with very poor hygiene.

A key cause of the problem is government failure to enforce laws and regulations. The provincial ministry of labour suggested that in China working conditions are also poor and that, as China improves its labour standards at home, we should expect to see changes in the way its companies operate outside its borders. This argument was used, by implication, to deflect the reality that Chinese companies are meant to respect Congolese laws and regulations. When Chinese companies come into the country, they are not properly introduced to Congolese labour law and so Chinese businesses are often not aware of Congolese laws. Thus the Chinese are subject to widespread criticism, based on comparisons with the conduct of Western companies and with Congolese law. There is significant Congolese responsibility for the Chinese not respecting the law. It is clear from our discussion with different ministries that (i) there were no conditions set for Chinese investment; (ii) the Chinese were not informed of the Congolese law; and (iii) there were questionable relations between Chinese investors and certain individuals in government, who provided protection in exchange for monetary rewards. The Congolese authorities must thus accept some responsibility for the way Chinese businesses behave. We were told of a permanent tension that exists between Chinese managers and their workers, but the Congolese government has never tried to intervene seriously. For most Chinese entrepreneurs, Congolese labour law is largely neglected. According to the provincial ministry of labour, ‘when we ask them to abide by the law, they accuse Congolese officials of being dictators or communists’.

In Mozambique, concerns have been raised over Chinese firms’ abuses of workers’ rights. In March 2006, the Minister of Labour, Helena Taipo, ordered the closure of two Chinese companies accused of physically and psychologically abusing Mozambican workers. In June 2007, workers for the China Henan International Cooperation Group Co.Ltd (CHICO), responsible for building the bridge over the Incomati River, went on strike, accusing the company of several violations of labour law (including unfair dismissal, physical assault, excessive workload, racial discrimination, and paying below national minimum salaries.) In response to growing public concern over Chinese businesses mistreating Mozambican workers, the Ministry of Labour recently published a Mandarin translation of the Mozambican labour law.

A study found tense working relations between Chinese and Mozambican workers in the construction and restaurant sectors. On the one hand, Mozambicans complain of poor working conditions (which include unfair penalisation for late arrivals, poor pay, lack of respect, poor bonuses for good performance, and insignificant transfer of skills). On the other, the Chinese complain that the Mozambicans are undisciplined, lazy, with no vision beyond surviving from day to day. While the study identifies cultural and language barriers as key factors contributing to the disgruntled relations between the two parties, it also points out that the manual and low-wage nature of these industries has an important role to play.

In South Africa, National Union of Mineworkers General Secretary Frans Baleni has been critical of the safety record at Aquarius mines. In 2009, NUM criticised Aquarius Platinum’s suggestion that it had received a clean bill of health after a government safety audit. According to NUM, Aquarius has in the past claimed to have undergone successful safety audits, without the completion of safety inspections and assessments.

In Zimbabwe, Chinese mining firms suffer the now common accusation that they export jobs by bringing in workers even for the meanest tasks (like earthmoving equipment operators and opening the main company gates). A Minister from one of the SADC countries who (as part of the Kimberly Monitoring team) visited the Chinese company, Unji, which is mining diamonds in Marange, was disturbed to find that it was a Chinese person who was opening the gate of the company. The culprits are the small Chinese mining companies. The Mining Workers’ Union also reported that most Chinese mining firms exceed the legally stipulated working hours of 8 hours per day. They generally work 12 to 18 hours. At the Makwiro platinum concession, workers complained that they do not get overtime for the 12 hours per day they work, and are instead asked to take time off. Related to this, local holidays were not observed. Protective clothing (if any) was also said to be in short supply, and workers had been observed wearing their own clothes for work.

While some mining houses have put up reasonable accommodation for their employees, this is an area still in need of attention, especially among the new investors. This was said to have nothing to do with being new in the environment, but an observance of minimum working standards. Another bone of contention between trade unions and Chinese mining firms has been their use of contract labour in violation of the Labour Relations Act. Contract labour is said to be generally preferred. Neither are minimum wages observed. It was also alleged that trade unions cannot address these concerns because of communication barriers with the owners, even in cases where the latter can speak English. These claims were substantiated by the findings of a government audit into the mining sector that no records on labour were available, and of all the sites visited none had legally appointed skilled workers (as required by law).

While some technical and engineering skills might have migrated, there is still an abundance of general and lower skills that can be employed. One of the biggest impediments to skills transfer is the language barrier. This occurs even at the senior level where the reports of translators are too simple in the technical sense (or incomprehensible). Even where there are Zimbabweans who speak the languages there are problems between the locals and official interpreters. Skills transfer at the small-scale Chinese companies is non-existent as they operate mainly like ‘big Makorokozas’ (big panners). At plants owned by a key Chinese firm, Sino-Steel, it seems that, for the time being, the issue of translation of manuals is out, and so only Chinese printed manuals will be available. This raises questions about what will happen when, as the CEO indicated, Sino-Steel upgrades the equipment currently installed at ZIMASCO using Chinese blueprints. It is premature to say at the moment, but there is a real possibility of the elbowing out of local know-how (which, admittedly, is non-existent at the moment) in the absence of training and technology transfer. It was reported that whenever Sino-Steel wanted mining development, it sent for technical teams from China. This practice has a strong bearing on technology transfer.

About the author(s)

Claude Kabemba is the Director of the Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW). In 2006, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) asked him to spearhead the formation of SARW. He holds a PhD in International Relations (Political economy) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Thesis: Democratisation and the Political Economy of a Dysfunctional State: The Case of the Democratic Republic of Congo). Before joining SARW, he worked at the Human Sciences Research Council and the Electoral institute of Southern Africa as a Chief Research Manager and Research Manager respectively. He has also worked at the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the Centre for Policy Studies as Policy Analyst. Dr. Kabemba’s main areas of research interest include: Political economy of Sub Saharan Africa with focus on Southern and Central Africa looking specifically on issues of democratization and governance, natural resources governance, election politics, citizen participation, conflicts, media, political parties, civil society and social policies. He has consulted for international organizations such Oxfam, UNHCR, The Norwegian People’s Aid, Electoral Commissions and the African Union. He has undertaken various evaluations related to the work of Electoral Commissions and civil society groups interventions in the electoral process in many African countries. He is regularly approached by both local and international media for comments on political and social issues on the continent. His publication record spans from books (as editor), book chapters, journal articles, monographs, research reports, and newspaper articles.

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