Regular readers of Pambazuka News will remember a debate held a year or so ago in its pages between the US-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) and ourselves about a lengthy report that HRW had issued on labour rights violations of copper mining firms in Zambia owned by the Chinese state-owned enterprise China Non-ferrous Metal Mining Co. (CNMC). http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/78660; http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/79570; http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/79602
HRW has recently published an update on CNMC subsidiaries in Zambia. The update compounds the empirical and methodological errors of its 2011 report. Instead of broadening its study to include labour rights violations at other foreign-invested copper mining firms in Zambia, HRW again singles out Chinese-owned companies and ignores the situations at other (Western-based) firms, as well as the factors that distinguish the copper mines and smelters owned by the Chinese state-owned CNMC firm from those owned by non-Chinese firms. Rather than conduct a genuine comparative study, HRW sees what it wants to see and thus again fosters the entirely predictable result of feeding anti-Chinese sentiment in Zambia — with its history of anti-Chinese incitement by the now-ruling Patriotic Front — in Africa generally, and internationally.
The update, like the 2011HRW report, especially focuses on safety and implies that the Chinese-owned mines are markedly less safe than other foreign-owned copper mines in Zambia. Indeed, HRW headlines the update ‘Zambia: Safety Gaps Threaten Copper Miners; Government, Chinese State-owned Subsidiaries Make Uneven Progress.’
As we have pointed out in our several responses to HRW’s 2011 report, industrial accident specialists hold that the key indicator of safety is the fatality rate. Until 2012, the two CNMC mines in Zambia were entirely underground (UG), while all other foreign-owned copper firms’ mines in Zambia were either surface (open-cast [OC] or open pit) or mixed UG/OC. All over the world, UG mines are much more likely than OC mines to produce mining fatalities and serious injuries. Officers of Zambia’s Mine Safety Department (MSD) we interviewed in 2012 estimated that UG mines in the country were 8-9 times more likely than OC mines to produce such grave accidents; our own calculations, based on separating fatality statistics of Zambia’s UG and OC mines, produced a 7.7:1 ratio. Yet, the fatality rate for the CNMC-owned mines is not significantly worse than for the other foreign-owned mines. That means that when the difference in the kind of mines owned (UG, OC or mixed) is taken into account, the CNMC mines are at least as safe, if not much more safe, than those of other firms. HRW wholly ignored this factor.
In its update, HRW implies that its 2011 report should be credited for ending certain human rights violations at CNMC’s Zambia facilities. That is deceptive. First, we have shown, in our responses to the 2011 HRW report regarding long hours at part of the CNMC-owned smelters, that employees at almost all other foreign-owned mining firms in Zambia also have long hours and, in more than one case, such long hours affect a much larger proportion of their workforces than at CNMC smelters, which employ only 20 percent of CNMC’s Zambia workforce. Second, 12-hour shifts at CNMC’s Chambishi Copper Smelter (CCS) are identical to those at the smelters in Zambia (Mopani Copper Mine Mufilira, owned by the Switzerland-based metals giant Glencore) and Australia that use the same ISASMELT technology that CCS uses. That is in part because ISAMELT technology is deemed to work best with two, rather than three shifts per day. For example, we were told that Yunnan Copper Co Ltd, which co-owns CCS with CNMC, used to have three shifts, but had to switch to two when they adopted ISAMELT technology.
In part, the longer hours at CCS are also because itsis a relatively new facility that has insufficient qualified supervisory personnel to cover three shifts. Yet without being bothered with a comparative research, HRW only singles out CCS and thus makes it appear uniquely abusive. The 12- hour shifts at CCS and at many non-Chinese owned mining facilities in Zambia may be deplorable, but in the case of CCS, they hardly amount to intended human rights violations, especially in the Zambian and African contexts, which feature much more serious rights violations.
Third, the Deputy CEO of CNMC’s Sino Metals Leaching Zambia (SMLZ) plant told us that the reason why shifts there were shortened to 8 hours was because CNMC was to issue its July, 2012 Initial Public Offering.
On the recognition of only one union at CCS and SMLZ (until late 2011), we have noted in our earlier critiques that there is agreement among officials, union leaders, academics and others in Zambia that workers in any given workplace are better off being part of the same union and that the leaders of Zambia’s two major mining unions differ only in that each thinks that their own union should be the exclusive bargaining agent. HRW, as a US-based organization, well knows that US labor law requires that one and only one union be the exclusive bargaining agent. No one regards that as a human rights violation; indeed, US unions fought hard for that result.
US-based HRW has adopted the arrogant approach of US political elites in refusing to acknowledge that anything is wrong with its report on Chinese copper mining in Zambia. Our findings show that all foreign-owned mining houses are exploiters of Zambian workers and Zambian resources, but CNMC is neither the worst abuser nor the super-exploiter. In a monograph that has recently been accepted for publication, we will show in much greater detail than we have thus far had space to provide, that HRW’s approach is shoddy social science and part of the one-sided China-in-Africa discourse that is promoted by the mainstream Western elites.
* Barry Sautman teaches at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology while Yan Hairong is at Hong Kong Polytechnic University