by Glory Mushinge
International Labor Day was celebrated on May 1st throughout the world again this year, but in Zambia it was simply another painful experience for workers. In a nation of over 11 million people, only 400,000 have formal full-time employment; most work in unsafe conditions, earning only meager salaries. Others, in part-time or temporary employment, work in far worse conditions. Their employers, most of them new foreign investors highly touted by the government, abuse these workers in multiple ways, and consistently subject them to dangerous working environments.
What the workers get in return is pay that is a pittance instead of real wages. But many of these workers have poor or few skills leaving them with no alternatives to these jobs. Other citizens, the victims of the country's high unemployment rate (50%), were nothing but spectators at the Labor Day celebrations. Zambia’s unemployment has pushed many families (86%) far below the poverty line. According to the World Bank, the average annual salary in Zambia was $500 (usd) in 2006. In 2003, 63.1% of the population was living on less than $1 per day.
Meanwhile, Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa proudly boasts that the country’s significant increase in foreign investors has created approximately 100,000 jobs in the past two years.But the reality for workers in Zambia is that much remains to be desired. In contrast to the President’s complacency, Zambia Congress of Trade Union (ZCTU) President, Sam Phiri, says that most of the foreign investment companies are purely seeking profit at the expense of local workers: “Our workers have been turned into slaves in their own country!”
“When you complain to these foreign investors about the conditions of service, they say in our country we do this, in our country we do that. But we have laws in this country that need to be respected! We feel insulted to be referred to other countries’ laws, when we have our own,” says Phiri. “We obviously need investors in this country, but what kind of investment are we (getting)?”
Phiri points out that local investors are equally culpable in suppressing workers’ rights. They regularly punish or fire workers who demand or merely request their rights. Amidst such realities, most workers try to endure these substandard working conditions, hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel.
The country’s recent labor history, especially in the mines, bakeries and some manufacturing companies, has been nothing short of treacherous for many workers, rife with reoccurring accidents and far too many deaths on the job.
• Two years ago, 51 Zambian miners were killed in an accident at the BIGRIMM (Beijing General Research Institute of Mining and Metallurgy) explosive factory, a multi-million dollar joint venture between China, and the NFC Africa Mining Company. The accident, caused by a massive explosion inside the manufacturing plant, killed all of the workers who were trapped inside. Neither management nor the Chinese staff employed at the plant were among the injured.
• Last year, five miners were shot and killed by police during violent protests over working conditions at the Chinese-owned Chambishi Mine on the Copperbelt.
• In July of last year, underground operations at a Chinese-owned coal mine in Sinazongwe were suspended due to unsafe working conditions. When Regional Minister Alice Simango attempted an unannounced visit to the mine, the Chinese managers prevented her from touring the facility. When the miners emerged, most of them were half naked and without shoes, hard hats or protective masks. “The workers are kept like pigs and subjected to a dangerous environment,” she said. “They are kicked and beaten as though they are not human beings.”
• In Kabwe, the former lead and zinc center of Zambia, China’s Mulungushi Textiles closed its doors, following massive profit losses. In 1997, The Chinese Government invested $24 million in upgrades to the plant, making it the biggest in the country and subsequently the largest employer in Kabwe. It also helped to keep the Zambian cotton growers from going under. But after repeated complaints from the plant’s workers about poor pay and safety conditions, the government was forced to intervene in 2004 and asked management to stop locking workers in the factory overnight.
• In bakeries, especially those owned by the Lebanese, workers have been locked up all night for fear that they would steal the bread and buns being baked, with no consideration for the tragic consequences should these bakeries catch fire. Overall, Lebanese investors have an approximate (usd) $7 million stake in Zambian businesses.
These are but a few examples of the terrible conditions prevalent in the Zambian labor market. Employee safety and health are routinely compromised. Forced to work long hours without breaks or food, it’s clear that investors value profits over their employees.
According to the 2007 investment statistics, Zambia opened its doors to foreign investment during the 1990s and privatized over 250 enterprises.
Driven largely by the anticipated privatization of the country's copper mines, which represent the largest earnings in Zambia’s foreign exchange, foreign direct investment has seen a significant increase in recent years. The comprehensive sale of nearly all government owned enterprises since 1992 has effectively reduced the state's control on 80% of the country’s economic activity.
China has become the third largest investor in the country after South Africa and Great Britain. Other countries that have invested in the Zambian market include Lebanon, France, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Holland. Some African countries such as Tanzania, Malawi, and Zimbabwe have also invested with different countries investing in particular industries. South Africa is mainly invested in services such as telecommunications and transportation.
In 2004, Vedanta Resources of Great Britain replaced the Anglo American Corporation as the majority shareholder in the Konkola Copper Mines.
In 2006, Chinese companies invested over $208 million (usd) in Zambia. By the end of that year, cumulative Chinese investments exceeded $316 million (usd), according to the Chinese Investment Center. The China Non-ferrous Metal Company's (CNMC) $150 million (usd) investment in the NFC Africa Mining Company in Chambishi is China's largest copper mining investment. Copper production by Chinese-owned mines in Zambia is estimated at between 25,000 and 30,000 metric tons per year. CNMC and a small Chinese copper firm signed a deal in 2006 to invest $220 million (usd) to build a 150,000-ton copper smelting plant projected to open in 2008The Chinese-owned firm CBMI Construction has been contracted by France's Lafarge to construct a new $120 million (usd) cement plant in Lusaka, to be commissioned in 2008. The new plant will produce 2,000 tons (80,000 50-kilogram bags) per day.
Other leading investors in Zambia's mining industry are Glencore International of Switzerland, First Quantum Minerals of Canada and the jointly owned Equinox Minerals of Canada and Australia. Fresh capital investment from these and other sources has increased Zambia's copper production.
The United States also has notable investment activities in the Zambian cotton market: Cargill Cotton Ginners Limited, worth over $18 million (usd); Dunavant Cotton, worth approximately $25 million (usd) and the National Milling Corporation, representing an initial investment of over $20 million (usd).
Some of these investors have done well observing Zambian labor laws but others have turned a blind eye. The government occasionally intervenes after a disaster to express disappointment and urge greater caution, but fails to enforce better business practices.
The government leaders who perpetuate this policy of inaction cannot expect workers’ patience to last. It is inevitable that undesirable and dire consequences will result in the long run. Some leaders seem to be committed to helping remedy the situation, but so far, there has been no meaningful improvement.
So, in the meantime, the government must become more pro-active in protecting its citizens from employer abuse. Government intervention is crucial to economic development. Toothless existing labor laws must be amended, and clear, enforceable guidelines for investors must be executed to show how they are expected to operate in this country.
Safe and economically viable jobs that instill a sense of dignity must be created for the Zambian people. Only then will the celebrations for Labor Day become meaningful. For now, the event is only a bitter reminder of what should be a proud tradition.
About the Author
Glory Mushinge is a Zambian freelance journalist and columnist working with various media organizations, both locally and internationally.