A prominent human rights group accused China-based mining companies in the southern African nation of Zambia of routinely ignoring labor laws, including forcing employees to sometimes work 18-hour days.
Human Rights Watch, in a report on Thursday, said Zambian workers at the Chinese-run copper mines commonly work 12-hour shifts doing heavy labor and disallow labor unions to organize, violating domestic and international regulations. The mines are all subsidiaries of China’s state-run China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corporation.
“Many of the poor health and safety practices we found in Zambia’s Chinese-run mines look strikingly similar to abuses we see in China,” stated Daniel Bekele, Africa director at New York-based HRW. “Respecting labor laws and ensuring workers’ safety should be standard operating practice both in China and abroad, not treated as an irritating barrier to greater profits.”
The rights group called on Zambian President Michael Sata, who was recently elected, to back up his criticism of Chinese labor practices in the country.
Zambia is the largest copper producer in Africa and is a huge part of the country’s economy, comprising nearly 75 percent of its exports and generating two-thirds of the government’s revenue. China is the largest investor in the landlocked nation’s copper reserves.
The 122-page report, “‘You’ll Be Fired If You Refuse’: Labor Abuses in Zambia’s Chinese State-owned Copper Mines,” is based on HRW’s research carried out between November 2010 and July 2011. It used more than 170 interviews, of which 95 were mine workers in Chinese-run copper mines and 48 from non-China-based mining operations.
One worker at a Chinese-run mine told the rights group that “sometimes when you find yourself in a dangerous position, they tell you to go ahead with the work.”
“They just consider production, not safety,” the worker added. “If someone dies, he can be replaced tomorrow. And if you report the problem, you’ll lose your job.”
The rights group said poor safety standards are commonplace at the mines, with many forced to work five 12-hour work days and an additional 18-hour change shift. Some miners said they are forced to work 365 days a year without a single day off.
“Several miners said the long hours contributed to accidents, and many complained about failing to receive proper overtime,” HRW said in the report, adding that the workers were exposed to extreme heat, acids, and noxious substances.
For years, workers have complained about unfair labor practices at Chinese-run companies in Africa. In 2005, a blast killed 51 workers in northern Zambia and last year Chinese managers were accused of firing live rounds at coal miners during a dispute over labor.
In October, workers held strikes at Chinese-run copper mines in the hope that newly elected President Sata would spur improved working conditions, forcing production to halt entirely.
Two weeks ago, the mine fired more than 1,000 miners but after government pressure, it allowed them to work again. However, the head of the mine said the “troublemakers,” referring to those who went on strike, would be punished, according to HRW.