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Are China’s economic activities good for Zambia?

Chinese investment to Zambia has created jobs and trade but there are serious concerns about conditions for labour in the copper industry

Mwai Daka, MA in Politics, University of Sheffield

China is Africa’s largest bilateral trading partner. The value of Chinese trade with Africa increased from $4 billion in 1996 to $200 billion in 2014. Much of the latter value is underpinned by China’s demand for raw materials and energy which it requires to sustain its massive economic growth. Zambia’s main commodity is copper and accounts for 60 per cent of the country’s total exports, as well as 70 per cent of Africa’s total copper production. China is digging deep into Africa’s copper giant.

On the face of it, the trade relationship between China and Zambia is beneficial to both counties. However, allegations of Chinese exploitation of Zambian workers have dogged the relationship in recent years. Therefore, in this blog, I put forward the question, ‘Are China’s economic activities good for Zambia’s economic security?’

What I mean here by economic security for Zambia is securing a Zambia-China relationship in which Zambian employees are able to protect their basic labour rights and benefit from decent employment opportunities from Chinese-owned companies. This I believe would help to create economic security because Zambia would have a functional labour workforce which is skilled and experienced in dealing with Chinese investment and the opportunities it brings.

Whilst acknowledging some of the negative affects China’s involvement in Africa has on the people of Zambia, Ian Taylor argues that Chinese investment overall is positive for Africa. Others, such as the former president of Zambia Michael Sata have been critical of Chinese investors, with reports that he threatened to deport Chinese investors for mistreating Zambian workers. To examine why Chinese activities in Zambia have come under criticism I draw attention to how Chinese-owned companies have failed to enforce basic health, safety and labour laws. In their 2011 report, Human Rights Watch highlighted how Chinese-owned companies and in particular, China’s Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corporation has mistreated Zambian workers. The report points out that employees of Chinese-run companies have been subjected to abusive health, safety and labour conditions, and persistent indifference to these conditions from the Zambian government. The report also discovered that consistent threats to fire employees were made to those who refused to work in unsafe underground conditions.

There are also other examples of how Chinese-owned companies have come into conflict with Zambian workers. In 2005, fifty-two Zambians were killed at an explosives factory, in Chambishi in Zambia’s Copperbelt Province, operated by a company jointly owned by the Beijing General Institute for research and Metallurgy (BGRIMM) and the Non-Ferrous China-Africa (NFCA) Mining Company. A year later, five Zambians were shot and injured by gunshots fired by a Chinese manager at a NFCA mine in Chambishi. This follows protests against low wages and lax safety standards. Given this backdrop, safety and labour relations in Zambian copper mines became key political issues in the 2006 presidential election. The rhetoric on the ground was that Chinese investors were not valuing Zambian lives. For example, Michael Sata who was challenging the then incumbent president, Levy Mwanawasa, campaigned against Chinese labour practices in Zambia and the ill-treatment of Zambian workers by Chinese mine managers.

In 2008, three years after the factory explosion in Chambishi, Zambian workers attacked a newly built Chinese-owned Chambishi Copper Smelter. One Chinese employee and three Zambians working in the kitchen were seriously injured. The protestors claimed that they had been told that the management was going on vacation and were abandoning collective negotiations in which workers had demanded changes in safety standards and a reduction in working hours.

In another incident in 2010, a Chinese supervisor at the Collum Coal mine in Southern Province shot thirteen Zambians. The workers at the mine were again complaining against the state of safety standards in the mines and their low wages. More recently, in June this year Zambian police arrested 31 Chinese miners for illegal mining, although they were deported without charge. These incidents demonstrate that labour safety standards and employee-employer relationships in Chinese mines in Zambia are poor. Additionally, this brings into question the ability of Zambian state authorities to enforce their own regulations.

Academics such as Ian Taylor maintain that it is the responsibility of African’s to improve these relationships. Therefore, what is the way forward?  One approach would be for Zambian workers to hold their government accountable for failing to impose tough sanctions on Chinese-owned companies and enforce labour regulations.

Additionally, Zambia needs a policy approach to foreign investment that specifically deals with the duties and obligations of foreign investors. Rather than prioritising investment over the wellbeing of workers, economic policies should prioritise the conditions in which employees to work and their long-term personal development. Adopting such a policy approach would be a public good with the potential to positively affect a large number of people and ensure that Zambia develops its work force.

Chinese-owned companies must also ensure basic human rights are being fulfilled in regards to their labour practices. For example, they can do this by ensuring basic health and safety standards are implemented, employees are not being overworked and are treated fairly.

In conclusion, China’s involvement in Zambia presents a variety of opportunities for sustainable economic development; but, this will only be the case if these opportunities are utilized sensibly by both sides. For Zambia, Chinese investments provide opportunities to employ Zambian workers and to train and equip the workforce. More importantly, the Zambian government needs to ensure that Chinese-owned companies respect Zambian workers, especially miners in the copper industry and ensure basic labour practices are met. If this can be achieved then the Zambian-China economic relationship can help to ensure greater economic security for Zambia.

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