Monday, December 13, 2010

China versus Miners

Zambian miners at the Collum Coal Mine are furious with their Chinese bosses. At least 11 miners were allegedly shot by two Chinese managers during a protest about poor conditions in October.

The southern rural district of Sinazongwe is covered in black coal dust, but otherwise there is not a hint that the 21st Century has reached the area. And this is what has angered the miners. They feel that while the Chinese benefit from the mine and live comfortably, they remain in poverty often renting mud-walled huts lacking basic facilities. There is also perception that the Chinese management has little concern for their workers' safety. They lack face masks, safety shoes and in many instances wear their own clothes in the course of duty.

"The salaries are a problem - we get 500,000 kwacha ($100; £63) a month but our rentals cost about 100,000 kwacha ($20; £13),"
says miner Ngula Simukuka, who has a wife and four children to support in nearby Sinazeze township.

The nearby Sikalima stream is another cause of friction between the Chinese-run mine and the cattle-herding community in the area, who rely on it as a source of drinking water. The stream now carries black sediment of waste coal which eventually flows into Lake Kariba.

Elijah Muchima, minister for the area, recently visited the mine and had heated words with the Collum Coal Mine Director Xu Jian Rui.
"You are using labour and you should pay for it adequately," Mr Muchima said."Your investment is important but our labour is more important. If you find that business is not profitable, close it down. Other people will come. If it's not profitable, go away. If it's not profitable, you would not have been here for nine years."

The mine director attributed his company's poor pay to problems it faces in marketing its coal.
"Our clients are mainly Zambian copper mines but sometimes they import coal from Zimbabwe," Mr Xu answered, speaking through an interpreter.

Last year China invested more than $400m (£250m) in Zambia's mining industry, which is one of the major employers in the private sector. So for th government a balance needs to be struck between attracting investment and protecting the interests of the locals.Collum currently produces an average of 150,000 metric tonnes of coal, which earns the mine up to $6m (£4m) a year.

A temporary wage deal was struck until negotiations between the mine and the workers' union conclude. Miners will now get a minimum of $90 (£57) a month, but will also be entitled to monthly housing and transport allowances totalling $57 (£36).

China has massively expanded its economic ties to countries across Africa in recent years. Wikileaks recently released details of US diplomatic cables that accused China of being "...a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals...China is not in Africa for altruistic reasons...China is in Africa primarily for China."

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