Thursday, March 15, 2012

“Harsh working conditions threaten Zambia-China ties”

By Matthew Pentz

Edited and Produced by Taylor Pool

Zambia Flag
Zambia’s close relationship with China dates back to the early 1970s. The African nation had been cut off from Western investment as punishment for supporting independence movements elsewhere on the continent, and China had stepped in with the funds it needed to survive. The cracks in their friendship, however, are beginning to show as accusations of financial exploitation have been gathering momentum.

China Flag
Chinese investment has allowed Zambia to bolster its infrastructure and brought much needed stability to its economy, but the Asian superpower has been ruthless in its pursuit of higher profits. 

In late 2010, Chinese mine managers shot 13 Zambian workers who were protesting for better wages. The workers had been receiving less than $4 per day, and even that was cut during a coal surplus. Zambian prosecutors later dropped the case against the managers, further fuelling public discontent. Tales of poor working conditions and low pay are also rampant.

“They are interested in investing in Zambia to exploit the resources,” said a Zambian journalist in the Copperbelt region who asked not to be named because of the level of power that Chinese mine owners have in the area. 

“They are more involved in exploiting copper than any other mineral. … The Chinese are pushing hard to get the major concessions in other areas where they can mine the metal.”

The issue becomes current

The issue was turned into a political tool in recent elections. Presidential candidate Michael Sata and his party, the Patriot Front, were hugely critical of what they saw as an unfair balance of power between China and Zambia. Though Sata in the PF lost a contentious election in 2006, their popular message carried them to power in 2010.

“During the run-up to the elections, the political party had made certain promises,” said Kenny Makungu, a senior lecturer at the University of Zambia. “But the claims that they were giving, for me, were a bit unrealistic, but that’s politicking.

“That was just pure politicking.”

For all of the promises, little has changed on the ground since the election. Once in power, President Sata sent delegates to China to ensure them that relations will remain smooth. Further, the administration recently demoted Chisimba Kabwili from the Ministry of Labor after he was involved in a confrontation with a Chinese investor, according to Martin Kapende of the Zambia Daily Mail.

After early attempts to engage the Chinese in discussions about reform were quickly rebuffed, the government seems to have adjusted its initial outlook.

“What the PF and the others expected (at first) was that the Chinese investors, like any other investors, would adequately pay their workers,” the journalist from the Copperbelt said. “They were also expected to address issues of safety in their operations, which were very low.”

There are more practical reasons for the lack of major policy change, as well. Another one of the PF’s major campaign promises was to create employment, but that only comes from foreign investment. Cracking down on the Chinese may improve working conditions, but the resulting blow to the economy could be crippling.

“(Foreign investment is) very, very, very important,” Makungu said. “We don’t have the means to invest into the development of our natural resources, especially in regards to mining and so on. Even with commercial agriculture, we need people to come in and pump in funds. Even with tourism development, we have a lot of potential, but don’t have enough resources to fuel development.”

Chinese look for alternatives

A possible alternative is to look to the West for investment, helping to diversify the economy and eliminate some of the reliance on the Chinese. 

“This is a very important component of our overall framework of economic development, especially with the advent of globalization,” Inonge Limbambala, the First Secretary (Trade) at Zambia’s United States embassy, said in an email. 

“One of the avenues we are undertaking is that of public-private partnerships, where we encourage the collaboration between the Government and the private sector, both local and foreign.”

The United States, in particular, is a strong candidate for a secondary trading partner, as it is has shown through investment in alternative sectors. While the U.S may not have the same level of interest as China in natural resources, it has invested very heavily in social areas, focusing on issues like better health care provision and the fight against HIV and AIDS. 

Sata still carries the popular support of the Zambian people, and there are few pressing him for immediate change. It is a hold-over from the optimism from his election victory, when thousands poured into the streets in celebration. His administration has made progress in other sectors that have been well received, including upgrades in the quality of roads and the availability of the internet.

Undercurrents of dissent are there, however, particularly within the trade unions.

“The cry is still there because people are not satisfied with what they’re getting from the mines,” the journalist from the Copperbelt said. “That dissatisfaction will continue for as long as that issue is not resolved. The crying will be there. People will be pushing for increased salaries and better working environment. It appears that the investors themselves are doing little to invest in their workers.”

Without any indication of change, relations between China and the Zambian people, if not the government, may soon reach a breaking point. It is a relationship that many on the continent will be watching closely. 

If even Zambia, one of the most prosperous nations in the region, cannot stand up and fight for credible change, it sends a powerful message to the rest of China’s business partners in Africa.

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