Category: Africa

Labor Abuses in Zambia’s Chinese State-owned Copper Mines

By , February 20, 2012

While Apple’s alleged labor abuses at its factories in China have been the talk of the press – both in the U.S. and in China – ignored has been China’s labor abuses in Africa.  But two weeks ago, Seton Hall School of Law, which is quickly establishing its China law credentials in the tri-state area, hosted a timely and informative discussion on labor abuses at Chinese state-owned copper mines in Zambia.  Like western consumers – and increasingly China’s middle class – hungry to get their hands on the newest Apple product, China, with its rapid growth, is desperate for natural and mineral resources.  Seton Hall‘s event, “Labor Abuses in Zambia’s Chinese State-owned Copper Mines,” examined the issues that arise when a country uses another to feed its insatiable hunger and raised questions about what is the legal and moral responsibility of China in its Zambian mines, the responsibility of the Zambian government to its own people, and the role of the international community, which itself hasn’t shied away from exploiting African nations in a similar manner for their own gain.  Below, James J. Baber, a first-year law student at Seton Hall, reports on the February discussion. 

To listen to the audio of the entire discussion, please click here
Length: 1 hour 51 minutes

China's relations with Zambia is largely about copper

Phelim Kine on Chinese Abuses of Workers’ Rights in Zambia

By James J. Baber*

On February 6, 2012, Phelim Kine, a Senior Asia Researcher for Human Rights Watch, spoke at Seton Hall Law about his experiences investigating the business practices of Chinese corporations investing in Zambia’s copper mines.  Mr. Kine presented the official Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) report “You’ll Be Fired If You Refuse”: Labor Abuses in Zambia’s Chinese State-owned Copper Mines“.  The event was hosted by Seton Hall Law Professor Margaret K. Lewis, a Public Intellectuals Program Fellow with the National Committee on US-China Relations.  Mr. Tom Kellogg, Program Director and Advisor to the President of Open Society Institute, also took part, offering commentary on the report.

The Human Rights Watch report details the persistent abuses in Chinese-run mines, including poor health and safety conditions, regular 12-hour and even 18-hour shifts involving arduous labor and anti-union activities, all in violation of Zambia’s national laws or international labor standards. The four Chinese-run copper mining companies in Zambia are subsidiaries of China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corporation, a state-owned enterprise under the authority of China’s highest executive body. Copper mining is the lifeblood of the Zambian economy, contributing nearly 75 percent of the country’s exports and two-thirds of the central government revenue.

The discussion focused on HRW’s concerns regarding Chinese business practices overseas. A central question is whether the Chinese government or Chinese state-owned firms are effectively “exporting” the kinds of abuses – of labor rights and rights of freedom of expression and association that occur all-too-frequently in China – to foreign countries which are targets of Chinese investment.

Mr. Kine began by speaking about labor practices in the Chinese-run copper mines in Zambia.  China has had for some time a massive presence in Africa, and the copper mines in

Zambian copper miners

Zambia are an extension of this long-term investment.  The driving force behind this modern day scramble for Africa is a desire of the Chinese government to both secure new markets and to maintain a stable flow of resources for its rapidly expanding economy.  According to Mr. Kine, despite the badly needed foreign investment and job opportunities that the Chinese investment brings to Zambia, the relationship leaves something to be desired from the Zambian workers’ perspective.  Mr. Kine stated that the conditions in some mines were found to be a “flagrant violation of both Zambian law and international law.”  HRW interviewed numerous workers to obtain first-hand information about the miners’ working conditions.  The HRW investigators uncovered various abuses of workers’ rights, ranging from the firing of workers who refused to work in hazardous areas to the manifest reluctance of the Chinese firms to provide their workers with proper safety and protective equipment.  Despite the issues and clear dangers involved, however, few of the miners quit these jobs because of the high double-digit unemployment in Zambia.  [See CIA Handbook for a review of Zambia’s economy]

In total, the HRW researchers interviewed 170 people and found three main problems: abuses of the miners’ legal rights to health and safety, violations of overtime pay requirements, and what Mr. Kine called a “pronounced anti-union sentiment” in the Chinese mines.  The miners were routinely denied access to, or left unsupplied with, personal safety equipment like protective clothing and respirators.  Mr. Kine stated that workers at the Chinese mines were also paid “one third to one sixth less than their international competitors.”  In addition, the Zambian miners were severely discouraged from associating with one of the two national unions, thereby depriving the miners of the right to associate.

After Mr. Kine concluded his initial presentation, Tom Kellogg raised additional questions and offered comments. Mr. Kellogg spoke about the common perception of the local Africans that the Zambian government encouraged the influx of Chinese investment and thus the Zambian government gave only lax scrutiny to the mines’ labor practices.

Despite the Chinese government’s history of bluntly refuting international criticism, Mr. Kellogg noted that the Chinese government is beginning to present a more evolved response to international criticism.  He specifically mentioned the detailed response of Chinese authorities with regard to the letter from HRW detailing reported issues within the mines.  Mr. Kellogg speculated on whether or not such a response would have happened five years ago.

The microphone was then returned to Mr. Kine for response.  He responded to Mr. Kellogg’s suggestion of Beijing’s possible new openness to international criticism as opposed to the traditional stonewalling.  He noted that HRW had in fact been able to speak directly with the China Nonferrous Mining Corporation in order to address alleged violations of the Zambian workers’ rights.  Mr. Kine also highlighted that all of the Zambian workers with whom HRW spoke stated that they were happy to have jobs despite complaints about the working conditions.  Zambia suffers from both high unemployment and an AIDs epidemic.  And the jobs and infrastructure provided by the Chinese companies are significant assets to the African nation.

Professor Lewis then commented that the Zambian laws regarding mining were quite good on paper but, as noted by one of the interviewees in the report, seemed to be disconnected from the reality on the ground.  Other questions revolved around whether the miners were aware of international labor laws and whether foreign consumers might play a more pronounced role in demanding better labor practices in copper mines.

Professor Lewis also commented on Beijing’s soft power push to present a new image by spreading Chinese culture through the Confucius institutes and classrooms.  The Chinese government is being more responsive to international human rights concerns, but Professor Lewis noted that the current crisis in Syria shows that Beijing is still very concerned about not being seen as promoting popular uprisings or infringing on a state’s sovereignty.

Mr. Kine then noted that the Zambian government has very limited resources at its disposal to combat the issues arising out of the Chinese-owned-and operated mine facilities.  A lack of

Workers strike at Chinese mine in Zambia

money and manpower coupled with the apparent lack of importance that the Chinese government places on human rights in its overseas endeavors is creating a very difficult situation for the Zambian miners.  However, Mr. Kine did find cause to express some hope for the future.  Recently, a Zambian government official had threatened to shut down a mine (albeit a privately invested mine, not a Chinese state-invested one) that did not conform to safety codes.  Mr. Kine thought that this action might indicate that the Zambian government will in the future be better able to provide for the safety of Zambian citizens who work in the copper mines.  Mr. Kine, in fact, called the Zambian threat to close the mine, “a shot across the bow” that may help convince the Chinese government to start toeing the line with more vigor.

The presentation concluded with a lengthy question and answer segment, in which the three experts tackled various questions both about China in general and the discussion at hand.  One questioner asked whether the Chinese companies could in fact be forced out of their mines for rampant safety violations.  Mr. Kine stated that this approach was “worth testing” because the Zambian government needs to use its leverage more directly, instead of engaging in mere fiery rhetoric. He then again referenced the renewed push by the Zambian government to assert its authority by threatening to close one of the mines.  The discussion ended on a high note, with the three presenters presenting their “wish lists” for the future of change in China.

* The author is a first-year Juris Doctor student at Seton Hall University School of Law, and received his BA in Philosophy from the University of San Francisco. Mr. Baber is a member of Seton Hall’s International Law Society.

China As a Global Superpower: Merely Aspirational or Actually Achievable?

By , October 29, 2009

The second in a series of three articles regarding China, On the Road to 2025.  Click here for Part 1.

On October 19, the Council on Foreign Relations and Project 2049 Institute cosponsored “China 2025,” a conference exploring where China may be in the next 15 to 20 years. Guest blogger Marcy Nicks Moody seeks to illuminate several of the arguments made and issues discussed, namely, domestic trends, foreign policy, and the economic outlook.

China set to rule the world?

China set to rule the world?

China Goes Global or Thinks Local?

by Marcy Nicks Moody

The second panel in last week’s “China 2025” conference covered a range of topics related to China’s foreign policy, falling under the loose rubric of “China Goes Global.” Michael A. Levi and Adam Segal, both of the Council on Foreign Relations, discussed two functional areas of Chinese foreign policy, namely climate and technology policy, while Ambassador David H. Shinn of George Washington University and Evan A. Feigenbaum of the Council on Foreign Relations addressed regional issues.

Though he was not the first to speak, Ambassador Shinn provided a useful framework for understanding not just China-Africa relations, but Chinese foreign policy-making more broadly. Three of China’s core interests in Africa, he argued, are its needs for (1) resources, (2) political support, and (3) productive commercial ties. With regard to the first of these, China has of course sought access to a range of Africa’s natural resources such as petroleum, timber, and minerals. In terms of China’s second need, though political support from African nations may not seem, on its face, as though it would be of extraordinary importance to China, Ambassador Shinn noted that four of the 53 African countries have diplomatic relations with Taiwan. For China, eliminating support of policies at odds with the “one China” policy is imperative, and Beijing spends a relatively large amount of time and effort in attempt to woo these four countries away from their current policies. Third, though Africa is not among China’s largest trading partners, China is Africa’s second largest trading partner, after the United States. And, China will likely become Africa’s largest trading partner next year, said Shinn.

Locating these three drivers of Chinese foreign policy – access to resources, political support, and an international environment conducive to economic growth – provides a useful understanding of what motivates China in its approach to the rest of the world.  Indeed, as an authoritarian government with sometimes questionable legitimacy, much of the Party-state’s justification for a continuation of its rule is now located in its abilities to increase the economic wealth of its citizens and to gain respect and exert influence internationally. Accessing the tools and conditions for economic growth as well as gaining outside political support therefore become crucial to the life of the Party-state. Though perhaps easy to ignore, the role of China’s domestic needs in its foreign policy decisions should not be underestimated.

As we seek to better understand Chinese foreign policy, its ‘go global’ policies, and their possible effects on U.S. interests, there are other myths which need to be dispelled. In their presentations on climate and technology policy, both Levi and Segal made particular note one of the idiosyncrasies of U.S. discussions and media presentations of China—that is, of the propensity for focusing on gross numbers and their Brobdingnagian dimensions. All numbers in China, both noted, are huge. But that does not necessarily make them meaningful. Segal noted, for example, that there has been an enormous increase in spending on research and development in China, but that innovation is more than simply spending. And expectations that China will become a technological superpower by 2025 are likely overblown. Similarly, China should not be viewed as eating U.S. lunch on clean-tech just because it is producing enormous quantities of solar panels, or has calls in its 11th Five Year Plan for reductions of 20 percent in energy intensity. With regard to the latter, China has created targets, not outcomes, and few, if any of these are on track to be achieved.

In sum, Adam Segal’s argument that China has embraced but will not profoundly change the global science and technology system is perhaps the most balanced view of Chinese ‘go global’ policies more generally. Many such policies and pronunciations are aspirational, but not, by 2025, achievable.

Marcy-NicksMarcy writes about China. In 2007-08, she was a Fulbright Scholar in China, where she was also a Research Fellow with the U.S.-Asia Law Institute. She received an M.A. in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and graduated from Brown University.

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