Chinese copper mine NFCA in Chambishi, Zambia (Photo: Mary Kay Magistad)
The road to Collum Coal Mine is covered in sooty black coal dust. I'm here with Huang Lei, a 25-year-old native of Sichuan, who used to work as an interpreter at this mine. As we drive in, Zambians and Chinese alike shout out greetings to him.
"People still remember me," Huang Lei said. "So it's like coming back home. I know this place too well."
Too well, because when he arrived, in late 2009, workers had just rioted. The Zambians complained their bosses beat them; they said their pay was pathetically low and safety procedures lax. Huang Lei said one of the first things he did when he got here was make sure workers got helmets and boots. He left after a year, he said, because he couldn't stomach the way workers were treated.
Soon after, in October 2010, hundreds of workers protested again, demanding fair pay. Taska Chinko, a coal miner, was in the crowd that gathered outside the gates of the Chinese managers' living quarters.
He said instead of trying to talk with the workers, two Chinese managers grabbed pellet guns, and began firing on the crowd. Chinko ran, but 12 other miners were injured — two critically. Chinko said he still can't believe what happened.
"When we saw the management coming out with guns, we felt so bad," he said. "We're not like animals, where they have to use guns to keep us away."
Once the shots were fired, the workers ran amok. They looted one of the Chinese compounds — exactly what the Chinese managers said they'd been trying to prevent.
Eventually, things calmed down. The injured were compensated, and the Chinese managers arrested. A few months later, however, the case was inexplicably dropped and the managers went back to China. And work at Collum coal mine carried on.
The four Chinese brothers who own the mine have made some changes. They've doubled salaries, though they're still below the international poverty line. They've also hired a Zambian human resources officer named Corry Moono, who works out of a mud brick room in the corner of the compound.
He said his role is to make sure the company follows labor laws, and to protect the interests of the company and the workers. But he added that's not how the company or the workers see him; he's received threats from both.
"The workers say, 'you're siding with the Chinese.' And the Chinese are saying, 'you are siding with the black guys.'"
But Moono said a little communication and respect go a long way. He said he's helped avert three near-riots since he came here last year.
"I've said, 'Boys, let's work together. Our investors are here to make money, and you're also here to work so you can earn a living.' I tried to talk to them like that and to some extent, they understood. They haven't rioted in the past nine months."
That doesn't mean they're happy.
One of the Chinese staff at the mine told Huang Lei, the former interpreter, that the workers are planning to strike again this week. They're still paid subsistence wages, and they don't get paid at all when the mine doesn't need them.
The miner Taska Chinko said he has other complaints, too. For instance, he gets no paid time off, he had to buy his own helmet, and he's worried about his lungs.
"There's a lot of dust inside the mine, particularly when they blast," he said.
Chinko said if he could, he'd find another job, but there aren't any.
China's Investment in Zambia
Chinese investment has helped create jobs around the country. Hundreds of miles north, in Zambia's Copperbelt, Collum's coal helps fuel Chinese copper smelting. Miners and smelter workers there voice similar gripes to those at Collum.
On payday, after a few swigs of hooch, they voice them loudly.
"I'm a boilermaker. Artisan!" one miner said. "But you see the money I'm making. If I gave you this money could you manage? You can't!"
The miners wave their narrow white paystubs from the Chinese-owned Chambishi Copper Smelter. Most of them are making less than $200 a month, and they say their rent eats up most of that.
Some Chinese companies protest that they're paying at least minimum wage, so they aren't breaking the law. But Goodwell Kaluba, General Secretary of Zambia's National Union of Mine and Allied Workers, said minimum wage is meant for a safe, sedentary job, like a salesclerk, not for a mineworker.
Kaluba said Zambia's Chinese-run mines are most often in breach of the country's labor laws, and have the worst safety records. Still, he's seen some improvements. He said one big mine, NFCA, used to have fatalities almost every month. For the past six months, there have been none. He said he hopes the trend continues because in many ways, Chinese investment has helped Zambia.
"Some of the youths who were unemployed, they're now employed. So that's an area we also need to appreciate. We cannot always talk about negatives," Kaluba said. "But when we're talking about safety issues, concerning the life of someone, we need to talk about it."
Some Zambian workers are surprised to hear that many Chinese miners in China aren't treated much better. But in China, workers have little recourse. There are no independent trade unions, many mines are state-owned, and the Chinese press is kept semi-muzzled on the subject of workers' rights.
So it's a bit of a shock for some Chinese companies to come to a place like Zambia, where workers can protest and strike, and even vote to change the government, which they did just last month. But there are some Chinese companies here that already get it.
Wu Jiang Rong is a project manager for Shanghai Construction Group, a listed, majority state-owned company that does about $11 billion of business a year around the world. He said his company is trying to use more local people in Zambia, even though they're not as efficient as Chinese workers.
"We try to train the local laborers to improve their skills. A lot of them, when they come, they are general laborers, and after a few months they are painter, carpenter, bricklayer."
He shows me around the stylish conference center and banquet hall his company has just finished building for the Zambian government. He sweeps a hand to the meticulously painted walls.
"You can see most of the paint work here has been done by them, including the base work," he said, referring to the local workers. "I'm very proud of them."
Wu sees his company's presence in Zambia as a long-term game, so he wants to do high-quality work, treat workers well, and build a good reputation. It's how world-class companies operate.
There is a bit of a class distinction between the huge, cosmopolitan Shanghai Construction Corporation, and the scrappy Collum Coal Mine, run by brothers from one of China's poorest provinces, who cut corners at the expense of their workers to earn more now, without thinking of the costs they'll pay — and have paid — as a result.
As we leave Collum Coal Mine, Huang Lei, said many Chinese companies in Zambia have learned from last year's shooting incident. Some change has started, and he said he hopes new President Michael Sata will speed it up.
"I hope that he will just force all the Chinese companies to follow the labor law properly."
Then, he said, Chinese companies, ever pragmatic, will get in line. In this new political climate, the worst of them may start doing the right thing for the wrong reasons — treating workers fairly, to avoid fines and prosecution. But at least that would be a start. The workers at Collum Coal Mine might even consider it a victory.