Tue, Nov 23, 2010 - Page 16 News List

Shafted

Though impoverished Africa sorely needs Chinese-backed businesses, dangerous conditions, poor pay and beatings blight the lives of the workers they employ

By Barry Bearak  /  NY TIimes News Service, NKANDABBWE, Zambia

A Chinese manager who has been charged with attempted murder for allegedly shooting Zambian miners after they protested against poor working conditions at their Chinese-run mine, is pictured in a cell at Choma Magistrate Court in Sinazongwe.

Photo: AFP

Hundreds of angry coal miners pushed toward the locked gate at Shaft 3, shouting and cursing as they neared the mine’s Chinese managers, who understood neither the English nor the Tonga words of the mob. As the workers butted up against the fence, the bosses grew more fearful and finally two fired their shotguns.

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,” Labor Minister Austin Liato said.

Chinese investment here amounted to US$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 (李強民), 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 labor 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 US$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.

Shaft 3, near the site of the shooting, is a steep, narrow pit, barely wide enough for both a man and the loaded coal bins that move on a single thin track to the top. The only light along the way comes from the miner’s headlamp. Water trickles from the ceiling. There are no toilets below, and the miners say they use abandoned tunnels when they have the need.

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.

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