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Chinese manager slain during labor dispute at Zambian mine

August 5, 2012 | 11:46 am

MOGADISHU, Somalia — Relations between the Chinese managers and Zambian miners at the Chinese-owned Collum coal mine in Zambia have been strained for years. On Sunday, old grudges boiled over.

In a riot over a pay dispute, enraged miners killed the Chinese mine manager, Wu Shengzai, 50, and wounded another representative of the Chinese mining company according to Zambian police.

Wu was slain when he tried to flee into the mine and workers shoved a coal trolley into him, police and government officials told news agencies. A second Chinese man was injured in the incident and hospitalized.

The miners were protesting what they said was management’s failure to implement a recently ordered increase of the minimum wage of $320 a month.

China has invested billions of dollars across Africa, often outmaneuvering the United States in the rush for access to oil, metals and other resources. Chinese trade with the continent has tripled since 2008 to $166 billion. Last month, Beijing pledged to double its loans to African nations as well, to $20 billion over the next three years.

But China’s expanding presence has brought a growing backlash against its managers and traders in southern Africa.

Zambia has frequently seen confrontations between Chinese mine management and workers, while South Africa President Jacob Zuma recently called for more balanced trade between China and South Africa, in a tilt at China's practice of importing South African resources and selling manufactured goods in return.

Last year, Chinese managers at the Collum mine fired on rioting workers. They were charged with attempted murder, but the charges were later dropped.

In 2006, a Zambian official who visited the Collum mine was shown on television weeping over the conditions there, and the government shut down the facility for three days.

At the time, workers described working in swirling coal dust for $2 a day, with Chinese supervisors shouting at them in a language they didn't understand. They also spoke of leaking rubber boots and equipment that gave them regular electric shocks. They said in a 2006 interview with The Times that they never had a day off.

In Zambia, Chinese companies own copper mines in the north as well as the Collum mine in the southern town of Sinazongwe. In 2006, miners rioted over wages at the Chinese-owned Chambishi mine and managers fired on protesters. The previous year, more than 50 Zambian workers died in an explosion at a Chinese explosives company.

Human Rights Watch strongly criticized conditions in Chinese-run mines in Zambia in a report in November entitled “You'll Be Fired If You Refuse.”

“In Zambia, the Chinese-run companies are the worst on health and safety, working hours, and the right to organize,” the report says.

The report says conditions at Chinese-owned mines in Africa often duplicated conditions for miners in China. Men were often forced to work 12- and 18-hour shifts, violating Zambia's labor laws, and some had no days off.

“Sometimes when you find yourself in a dangerous position, they tell you to go ahead with the work,” an underground miner at a Chinese state-owned copper mine told Human Rights Watch. “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.”

“In addition to their poor safety standards, several Chinese-run copper operations in Zambia require miners to work brutally long shifts, despite difficult conditions involving extreme heat and contact with acids and noxious chemicals,” the report says. “Many miners at Sino Metals work five 12-hour shifts a week as well as a sixth 18-hour ‘change shift’ when they rotate from the day shift to the night shift or vice versa. Other miners there described working 365 days without a single day off.”

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--Robyn Dixon

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