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Conflict at Zambian Mine Casts a Shadow on Chinese Labor Practices

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Miners work at the physical edges of our consumer society. Like the canary in the mine shaft, they are sentinels for the triumph, toil and tragedy of the global economic system. Only days after the miraculous rescue of the Chilean miners, Chinese supervisors shot and wounded 11 workers in a coal mine in Zambia on October 15. The labor conflict casts a dark shadow on the track record of Chinese overseas investors.

Labor struggles at a Zambian mine have put the spotlight on the role of Chinese investors in Africa before. A massive blast at the Chinese-owned Chambishi copper mine killed 49 workers in 2005. The following year, security forces killed five protesting workers at the mine. The killings created outrage throughout Africa, and sent shockwaves through the Chinese government. In country after country, President Hu Jintao urged Chinese businesses to respect local laws when he visited Africa in early 2007. At home, the Chinese authorities began preparing a flurry of guidelines and recommendations to improve the social and environmental performance of Chinese companies overseas.

In the most significant step yet, the Ministries of Commerce and Environmental Protection in July published draft Guidelines on the Environmental Behavior of Chinese Foreign Investors. These guidelines emphasize the social and environmental responsibility of Chinese companies and banks abroad, and foresee the creation of appeal mechanisms for "local controversial projects."

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.

The labor conflict at Zambia's Collum mine is not an isolated case, and is hugely damaging for China's image in Africa. If the Chinese government is serious about cleaning up the safety, labor and environmental record of its overseas investors, recommendations and appeals will no longer do the trick. As it has demonstrated in other areas, the government, which still owns the biggest Chinese companies after all, has ample means to enforce its will. It should quickly adopt the environmental guidelines for foreign investors, which have lingered in draft stage for too long. It should closely supervise Chinese companies which invest abroad, and crack down on investors which violate Chinese guidelines and local law. No matter who the owners are, the scandalous environmental, health and safety conditions which have been espoused by the Collum mine for so long are no longer acceptable.