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Chinese copper firms in Zambia abusing workers, rights group says

November 3, 2011 |  2:17 pm

Chinese-run copper mining companies in Zambia routinely violate labor laws and regulations intended to protect workers’ safety and their right to organize, according to a report released Thursday by Human Rights Watch.

The report, entitled “‘You’ll Be Fired If You Refuse’: Labor Abuses in Zambia’s Chinese State-Owned Copper Mines,” describes abusive employment conditions at four Chinese-run mines, including substandard health and safety conditions, 12- to 18-hour shifts of strenous labor, and anti-union activities.

According to Human Rights Watch, the violations were documented between November 2010 and July 2011 and drawn from interviews with more than 170 mine workers, including 95 from the four Chinese-run companies and 48 from other multinational copper mining operations. The Chinese companies are subsidiaries of China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corp., a state-owned enterprise, the rights advocacy group said.

An underground miner at Non-Ferrous China Africa, the longest-operating Chinese-owned copper mine in Zambia, told Human Rights Watch that workers were often forced to continue with their tasks even when faced with a dangerous situation.

“They just consider production, not safety,” the organization quoted the miner as saying. “If someone dies, he can be replaced tomorrow. And if you report the problem, you’ll lose your job.”

When workers at three of the four Chinese mines initiated strikes last month, at least 1,000 were fired, according to the rights group. They were later reinstated after government pressure, the group said.

Miners also reported poor health and safety standards, such as extreme heat and inadequate ventilation, contact with acids and noxious chemicals, failure to replace workers’ damaged protective equipment, and brutally long work shifts.

Human Rights Watch called on the government of Zambia, which is Africa's largest copper producer and heavily relies on exports of the metal to bolster its economy, to ensure that mining companies operate in accordance with national and international standards.

“More stringent measures are needed against all companies that flout labor laws and mining regulations,” Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.


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Photo: Zambian President Michael Sata, left, listens to Chinese Ambassador Zhou Yuxiao at State House in the capital, Lusaka, on Sept. 26, 2011. Sata has told Beijing that he welcomed Chinese companies investing in Zambia but only if they obeyed the law. Credit: Makson Wasamun / Reuters