Barking up the wrong tree

Published on Pambazuka News, by Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong, December 14, 2011. – Download the report: You’ll Be Fired if You Refuse, Labor Abuses in Zambia’s Chinese State-owned Copper Mines, 122 pages, as full report or by chapters

The latest report by Human Rights Watch about labour abuses in Chinese mining companies in Zambia,  is not only woefully inaccurate but also perpetuates Western racist stereotypes about China’s ‘neo-colonialist’ expansion in Africa, according to Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong.  

A November 2011 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on labour abuses in four mining firms in Zambia parented by state-owned enterprise (SOE) China Non-ferrous Metal Mining Co. (CNMC) is predictably a media sensation. [1] Myriads of news outlets and blogs have reported its conclusions: that the Chinese firms are ‘bad employers’ compared to the five Western-based major foreign investors in Zambia’s copper mining industry; that they are the worst as to the safety of workers, their pay, hours and union rights. Despite HRW’s focus on one industry in one country, it sets out to provoke inferences that accord with the larger, highly-skewed Western discourse of ‘China-in-Africa.’ [2] Indeed, HRW asserts (p.1) that its report ‘begin[s] to paint a picture of China’s broader role in Africa’ … //


Why does HRW focus on labour abuses at CNMC firms in Zambia? Labour abuse in Zambia’s copper industry, while deplorable, is not an outstanding issue in the context of the African continent, which like many other parts of the world, experiences massive human rights violations, including grave labour rights violations. CNMC’s practices, seen in the context of Zambia copper industry, are worse in some respects (pay), about the same in other respects (safety), and better in still other respects (job security). They are slowly improving. There should be improvements across the board for mine workers in Zambia, who still receive a subsistence wage and live in underserviced communities, a possibility made less, rather than more likely when Chinese firms are singled out and erroneously accused of being the worst.

Conditions for millions of miners on the continent are so egregious that the African Union Commission on Human Rights and People’s Rights stated in 2010 that, ‘Mine workers in most parts of Africa work in deplorable conditions often prone to accidents.’ [46] At the same time, there has been no shortage of critical studies of labour practices in the CNMC mines in Zambia,[47] which employ one-tenth of one percent of the country’s workforce. HRW is thus barking up the wrong tree. Its exclusive focus on CNMC firms in Zambia as the worst labour abuser serves no useful purpose. Rather, it plays into the racial hierarchy in Zambia and beyond by calling its report ‘a magnifying lens’ for Chinese labour practices in Africa (p. 13). It also reinforces erroneous notions promoted by Western media and politicians, such as Hilary Clinton and David Cameron,[48] that China is a ‘neo-colonialist’ power in Africa, while Western states and NGOs are the guarantors of human rights. Is it a coincidence that HRW studies of abuses in the mining industry in Africa have been confined to one about a Chinese SOE and two others that implicate the Zimbabwean government, a target of Western sanctions? The HRW report in fact tells us more about the political agenda of HRW than about Chinese activities in Africa.
(full long text, Tables and Notes 1 – 48).

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