Zambia balances aid and abuse from the Chinese

Investment amounts to $1.2 billion in just the past year, involving mostly Chinese-run companies

 A coal mine owned by the Chinese in Zambia.

The Zambian miners scrambled in terror. Bodies pivoted, jounced and stumbled. Boston Munakazela did not know he was hit until he suddenly fell over and saw the blood on his chest and arms. Vincent Chenjele was knocked off his bicycle with a hole ripped in his belly. Wisborn Simutombo, bleeding from his arms, legs and stomach, pleaded with friends to pull him to safety across the coal-dusted road.

“We weren’t going to hurt them, but maybe the Chinese didn’t understand that,” Simutombo, 25, said recently, displaying scars left by the spray of shotgun pellets. “They were quick to shoot us though, and in Zambia the Chinese can get away with anything.”
As in many other African nations, the Chinese are an enormous economic presence in this impoverished but mineral-rich country, and their treatment of local workers has become an explosive political issue, presenting an awkward balancing act for governments desperate for foreign investment.

“We’re an economy in transition, and we can’t afford to lose the cow that gives us milk today,” said labour minister Austin Liato.

Chinese investment here amounted to $1.2 billion in just the past year, according to the government. Nearly two-thirds of new construction involves Chinese-run companies, said Li Qiangmin, the Chinese ambassador in Lusaka, the capital. In this nation of 12 million where a small minority of workers, perhaps one in 10, have salaried employment, the 25,000 jobs provided by Chinese-backed businesses and projects are badly needed.
But many Zambians complain that these powerful foreigners are permitted to play by their own rules, plundering the country more than developing it and abusing workers as they go. The wounding of 13 miners in a labour dispute at the Collum mine last month once again brought these raw feelings to the surface, revealing conditions at a coal mine where men walk more than 1,000 steps into the earth to slosh through dark and frequently unsafe tunnels. They are paid about $4 a day and say they are expected to work every day of the year.

“We do not have support timbers everywhere they need to be, and we have no masks to protect us from the coal dust,” said Boston Sikalamba, 21, who was buried for several minutes by a cave-in this month. “After the dynamite is set, there’s nothing to do about the dust but breathe it, and if you are slow at your work, the Chinese beat you.”
The Collum mine has been owned for the past nine years by a Chinese businessman, Xu Jianxue. His four younger brothers operate the mine’s four shafts, employing 855 workers, including 62 Chinese supervisors.

Most of the Chinese know only a few words of English and Tonga, languages commonly spoken in this part of the country. On occasion, they tell the miners, “Tomorrow, job takwi,” using the Tonga word for “nothing,” meaning there will be no work. Such unexpected days off were at the root of the dispute.

Year after year, two unions have signed deals with Collum Coal, precisely spelling out benefits like a Christmas bonus and transportation allowances.

Mistreatment

But these pacts are routinely ignored by the company, the unions say, and while workers bemoan the unremitting work schedule, their biggest gripe is getting docked for days when broken machinery or an oversupply of coal on the market leaves them idle.
Xu Jianrui, the brother who operates Shaft 3, denied in a phone interview that the miners were overworked or mistreated.

“They have four or five days off every month because they need to go to church,” he said, speaking in Chinese. “You know, they are kind of lazy. They work like 10 to 15 days but want a full month’s salary.”

Since the shooting, Zambia’s labour commissioner, Noah Siasimuna, has been drawn into the dispute. Atop his desk is a thick folder about Collum Coal, but most of the paperwork is new. No signed labour agreement with the company was ever filed with his office as required by law, he said. Nor did the unions formally report any noncompliance.
Siasimuna, like the labour minister, Liato, cautioned against any conclusion that impugned Chinese businesses as worse than others. “We have bad employers that come from everywhere, including Zambia,” Liato said.

The unions, however, say Chinese owners are indeed their biggest headache. And, contradicting the government, the president of the Gemstone and Allied Workers Union of Zambia, Sifuniso Nyumbu, was able to produce contracts with Collum that had the signed and stamped approval of the commissioner’s office as well as letters from the labour Ministry acknowledging union complaints about the company.

“The Chinese promise to implement a deal, then claim they forgot or there was an oversight,” Nyumbu said. “The union doesn’t have enough money to keep sending people down to Collum Coal, and when our members there speak up, they get fired.”
The two supervisors who used their shotguns, Xiao Lishan and Wu Jiuhua, refused to be interviewed. But Xu, who was not present at the confrontation, said one of the men aimed into the air and the other fired into the ground, causing dozens of pellets to ricochet. He said the managers feared for their lives when the mob began heaving stones.

Michael Sata, an opposition leader who has long used anti-Chinese sentiment for political combustion, denounced the spilling of “innocent blood” by “merciless so-called investors.” But President Rupiah Banda said singling out the Chinese was unfair. One local newspaper quoted him as saying, “Everyday, people are shot by Zambians, are shot by white people, are shot by the Americans, they are shot by everybody.”

The two supervisors were arrested and charged with attempted murder, though they are now free on bail. Critics of the Banda government expect the case to be whitewashed.
“The Chinese finance the ruling party, so the government is their captive,” said Lee Habasonda, the director of a prominent pro-democracy group.

This is a common assumption of civic crusaders, though one offered without proof. Li, the Chinese ambassador, denied any interference in Zambian politics. “It is against our principles,” he said over tea at the embassy.

The shooting has distressed the Chinese. Li pointed out that Collum Coal is a private company and is not registered with Chinese authorities. In fact, Xu Jianxue, the owner, now claims Australian citizenship, he said. He called the episode a “private matter,” and yet he said the embassy had “ordered” — a word he later changed to “urged” — the company to settle its labour problems and pay the medical bills of the wounded miners.

The New York Times

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