The bosses don’t give us respirators or hard hats - nothing. We must provide our own safety equipment or go without. I have had chest pain, head pain, yet I don’t have medical care with the company either... We have no rights in general. If you try to get permission for anything, they say no. I wanted to go to my grandfather’s funeral. The boss said; ‘If you go, maybe I’ll fire you.’ I needed to keep my job, so I didn’t go.
This quote could easily have come from a migrant labourer hired to work in a Chinese coal mine. It actually came from a casual worker at a Chinese-owned copper mine in Zambia.
He was one of 95 mine workers employed at four copper mines run by Chinese state-owned companies who were interviewed in a new research report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) this month. The 122-page report documents a wide-range of labour abuses including anti-union activities but focuses primarily on safety issues. And here, for anyone remotely familiar with the working conditions and management practices in Chinese mines, an all-too-familiar picture emerges.
Safety guidelines are routinely ignored, miners are threatened with dismissal if they complain about unsafe working conditions, accidents are covered up, and the government officials tasked with oversight are compromised by their close relationship with the mine bosses. Increased production is the number one concern of Chinese mine owners, everything else is secondary. As a blast engineer at one copper mine told HRW:
There is way too much pressure from the Chinese that permeates through the Zambian managers as well. They care about always pushing, pushing to get the most production, and that has made us less safe…. Second, the Chinese never slow down or look deeper at accidents when they happen. Once when I raised this with a Chinese manager he said, ‘Why are we talking about accidents when there are two or three in a week? That’s nothing.’ They made clear that in China accidents are far more frequent, that two to three a week is model. We have tried to convey that this isn’t China, that standards are different, but it has been difficult.
There is some evidence to suggest however that Chinese mine operators are beginning to understand that the traditional Chinese model of production is not necessarily the best one. In a letter to HRW, China Non Ferrous Metals Mining Corporation (CNMM), the umbrella corporation controlling China’s mining interests in Zambia, claims that Chinese companies have undertaken several measures to improve safety and that management is responsive to workers’ concerns on this issue.
The mere fact that CNMM was willing to respond in detail to HRW’s findings does indicate an awareness of China’s poor record as an employer in Zambia, as well as the need to improve management practices and labour relations in its mines.
Zambia has a long history of copper mining, well-established safe work practices and guidelines as well as an independent and effective trade union movement. And there is a chance that Chinese companies might begin to adapt to this system rather than simply try to impose their own, as has been the case up until now. If this does happen, there is also a chance that mine operators back in China might begin to see the benefits of putting safety first too.
Safety does seem to be improving In China’s coal heartland of Shanxi, where the mines have been brought back under state control, and the trade union is experimenting with collective bargaining - a move that could lead to a more stable, better-paid and better-trained workforce.
In the rest of China in meantime, we are still faced with the absurd spectacle of coal mine managers covering their face in soot and sneaking into a tunnel after an explosion in order to “prove” that they were supervising a shift at the time of an accident (as required by state council regulations) rather than actually assisting in the rescue effort.