Zambia: Safety Gaps Threaten Copper Miners – by Human Rights Watch (February 20, 2013)

Government, Chinese State-Owned Subsidiaries Make Uneven Progress

(Johannesburg) – Workers in the copper mining sector in Zambia remain vulnerable to abuse. New Human Rights Watch research found that the government of President Michael Sata, who promised to prioritize labor rights when he took office in September 2011, has made some improvements in supporting the oversight of the mines, but there remains inadequate enforcement of national labor laws designed to protect workers’ rights.

Human Rights Watch published a report in November 2011 documenting labor rights abuses at four Zambian subsidiaries of China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining Corporation (CNMC), a state-owned enterprise under the authority of China’s highest executive body, the State Council. In follow-up research in October 2012, Human Rights Watch found that CNMC’s subsidiaries made some notable improvements on reducing work hours and respecting freedom of association, but that miners continued to face poor health and safety conditions and threats by managers if they tried to assert their rights. The Zambian government has not adequately intervened to address these problems, Human Rights Watch found.

“President Sata ran on a populist campaign to protect workers, so the lack of meaningful progress in the mining sector is disappointing,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Although CNMC’s subsidiaries have addressed some of the labor rights abuses documented by Human Rights Watch in 2011, the miners still face significant health and safety risks.”

In October, Human Rights Watch interviewed 31 miners from the four CNMC-run copper-mining operations: Non-Ferrous China Africa (NFCA), an underground mine; Chambishi Copper Smelter (CCS), a copper smelting plant; Sino Metals, a copper processing plant; and China Luanshya Mine, an underground and surface pit mine. Human Rights Watch also spoke with national union representatives, government officials, diplomats, and officials from international organizations working on labor issues in Zambia.

Human Rights Watch has maintained an ongoing dialogue with CNMC about its safety standards, which are crucial in an industry where acid burns, extreme heat, heavy equipment, high voltage, and falling rocks are prevalent.

In its follow-up research, Human Rights Watch found that the Zambian Ministry of Mines, Energy, and Water Development made little progress in 2012 in holding responsible companies and managers who put miners in dangerous work situations. Workers and CNMC company officials reported that the ministry’s Mines Safety Department only infrequently performed safety inspections that should be routine under Zambian law.

Rather than undertaking proactive, preventative inspections, department officials most often came to worksites only in response to accidents, workers said. The department has been woefully underfunded and understaffed through 2012, leaving it unable to fulfill its responsibilities.

Deputy Minister of Mines Richard Musukwa told Human Rights Watch: “We have made our [safety] standards very clear. We will continue to attract foreign direct investment. This will not be done at the expense of the safety of our people just because we want bread and butter. We don’t mind who owns what mines… just that the people who own a mine in the Republic of Zambia uphold our standards. … If it is not safe, our people should not work, at all times.”

There are indications that the Zambian government is making a greater commitment to labor issues, Human Rights Watch said. The 2013 national budget is projected to almost double the money allotted to the Mines Safety Department, which is advertising vacant inspector positions for the first time in several years. The Zambian government should follow through on these notable commitments to ensure that the department has adequate staffing, equipment, and resources to carry out routine, unscheduled inspections that are essential to preventing both accidents and long-term health problems.

A high-level official in the Mines Safety Department told Human Rights Watch that the CNMC-owned mines “won’t do anything wrong when you [inspectors] are there, but when you are not looking, they will do bad things…. If you tell them [to do things for safety], they will do it. But six months later they will have stopped” without ongoing inspections and pressure.

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