Peter Bosshard: Conflict at Zambian Mine Casts a Shadow on Chinese Labor Practices

Peter Bosshard of International Rivers writes for the Huffington Post about the recent incident in which 11 Zambian miners were shot by Chinese managers:

On October 15, a group of workers at the Chinese Collum Coal Mine (CCM) in Southern Zambia took concerns over unsafe working conditions to the mine’s management. Under circumstances which have not been clarified, the Chinese managers shot and wounded 11 of the workers. Two of them are in critical conditions, and the managers have meanwhile been charged with attempted murder. Like in 2006, the violent labor conflict triggered strong political protests in Zambia.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson explained that the Zambian workers had been “wounded by mistake.” This does not answer the question why managers confront their workers with shotguns in the first place. And the Collum mine, a private Chinese enterprise, has a long history of safety problems and labor conflicts. The mine recorded three accidents within one week in 2008. A local representative reported that the injured workers received no compensation, and called on the Zambian government to close the mine until the safety standard was improved. Yet the accidents continued throughout 2009 and 2010. The district’s health director complained in 2009 that the stream emanating from the Collum mine was so polluted that neighboring villages were suffering from cholera outbreaks. Another local representative charged that workers were receiving “slave wages” and were not able to feed their families. The safety and labor conditions resulted in several strikes and violent conflicts between workers and their management over the years.

The scandalous conditions at the Collum mine reflect the dangerous and often exploitative conditions in China’s own mining sector. Within China, workers, non-governmental organizations and the media have very limited means to inform the public about the breach of safety and labor regulations. In China’s overseas investments, muzzling public opinion is usually not possible.