Skip to main content

(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.

The government should also approve a longstanding proposal to increase the fines for violating safety regulations and impose fines on those who violate safety regulations. A miner at China Luanshya Mine told Human Rights Watch that the Mines Safety Department generally targets low-level workers, rather than management, when imposing fines: “When they discover something is wrong with a section, they will charge the lowest miner instead of the officials in charge of those areas…. [Yet it’s the] officials [who] do the planning and tell the employees to go in the unsafe areas.”

Many of the miners interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they still faced pressure from managers to work in unsafe areas.

“The Mines Safety Department needs to zero in on the company managers who put Zambian miners at risk in the country’s most lucrative industry,” Bekele said.

In addition, miners at Sino Metals, CCS, and NFCA continue to encounter difficulties obtaining new personal protective equipment (PPE) from their employers when equipment becomes damaged during work. They reported that their managers still often refuse to replace legally required protective gear until a set period of time has elapsed. As a result, miners whose equipment is damaged earlier often have to work for months vulnerable to injury. A miner from Sino Metals told Human Rights Watch:

A person can work without proper attire, and chemicals can get in [your body], but [management] say[s] you can only get new equipment at [every] six months. We have dust as a variable, without any proper equipment such as a respirator. We smell lots of chemicals – acid, lime, carbon monoxide. The environment is very polluted. Once you work very hard, in three or four years, your internal organs can be damaged… Most of the workers at Sino Metals have been destroyed health-wise.

Another miner showed the acid burns on his foot, where acid had eaten a hole through his protective rubber boots. He was still working every day in these boots, exposed to new splashes of acid, when interviewed by Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch found that CNMC’s subsidiaries made several notable improvements over the last year. Sino Metals eliminated the 12-hour shift documented by Human Rights Watch in 2011, when most miners there worked 72 hours a week in a hazardous environment. Sino Metals workers now work six eight-hour shifts a week, in line with Zambian and international labor law.

CCS continues to require 12-hour shifts, although miners there work four out of every six days. While CCS’s cumulative monthly hours are close to what is outlined under Zambian law, the 12-hour shift might run afoul of international labor law given the hazardous nature of the work and the potential impact of 12-hour shifts on health and safety, Human Rights Watch said.

In another development, union officials for the Mineworkers Union of Zambia (MUZ), one of two major unions, told Human Rights Watch in October that they were organizing at Sino Metals, and believed they would soon establish a branch at CCS. Human Rights Watch previously reported that Sino Metals and CCS had consistently blocked the presence of MUZ, allowing only the National Union of Miners and Allied Workers (NUMAW) to establish a branch.

Despite these improvements, union representatives from each of the four CNMC subsidiaries told Human Rights Watch that threats and harassment of workers by supervisors curtailed the unions’ ability to advocate effectively on behalf of the miners. This is not unique to the Chinese-run firms, as Human Rights Watch reported in its 2011 report, and reflects a broader failure of the Zambian government to protect union representatives from harassment and reprisals across the Copperbelt. The Zambian government should take greater action to ensure that union representatives can advocate for improved conditions without retaliatory consequences.

Workers also told Human Rights Watch that after the 2011 report was released, managers at Sino Metals threatened to fire any workers discovered to have provided information to Human Rights Watch. One miner at Sino Metals told Human Rights Watch, “They don’t want me to tell other people, because they have a problem [with labor issues]. We fear to speak the truth because they say we will be fired.”

When Human Rights Watch raised these issues with CNMC, executives defended the firm’s safety record and denied any obstruction of Zambian workers’ freedom of association. The company also said it was open to suggestions concerning the replacement of damaged PPE.

“CNMC’s engagement in the Zambian copper mining industry has the potential to provide a real win-win for the company and its workforce, and the recent improvements move the company several steps toward that goal,” Bekele said. “In 2013, the company should redouble its efforts where its record is weakest, in the area of health and safety.”

For more details about labor conditions facing Zambian workers, please see below.

Hours at Work
In the November 2011 report, Human Rights Watch wrote that two China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining Corporation(CNMC) subsidiaries, Sino Metals and Chambishi Copper Smelter (CCS), required workers to work 12-hour shifts, despite the dangerous nature of the work and the impact of fatigue on safety and health. CNMC’s other two subsidiaries, Non-Ferrous China Africa (NFCA) and China Luanshya Mine, continue to use eight-hour shifts, which is common practice in Zambia’s copper mining industry.  

In perhaps the most important labor improvement following Human Rights Watch’s report, miners at CNMC’s Sino Metals plant reported that their 12-hour shifts in early 2012 were changed to eight hours. Many miners who previously worked 72 hours a week handling chemicals in a hazardous environment now have a 48-hour work week – which is standard under Zambian law and in accordance with international labor law.

Human Rights Watch commended this development at Sino Metals, but expressed concern that miners at CCS, another subsidiary, continue to work 12-hour shifts, four out of every six days. While the average hours per week are close to the 48-hour work week outlined under Zambian law, the 12-hour workday arguably contravenes International Labour Organization Recommendation 183 on safety and health in mines – given the dangerous nature of the work at CCS’s copper smelting plant and the potential impact of the 12-hour shift on health and safety.

Several CCS miners told Human Rights Watch that they strongly preferred 8-hour shifts. Echoing concerns raised by other miners, one worker said, “Sometimes a lot of accidents are happening because of 12-hour shifts.”

Under Zambian law, people who work longer than 48 hours a week are entitled to overtime. Several miners at CCS, however, indicated that they were not given adequate overtime for weeks in which they worked more than 48 hours. Workers reported not being paid the correct amount for the overtime they worked or, in some cases, not being paid overtime at all. For example, one CCS employee told Human Rights Watch: “I do 12-hour shifts. It’s not okay, especially since the hours are accounted wrong. We don’t get paid according to how long we work. I have not said anything because I fear being victimized.”

Another miner at CCS similarly complained of the inadequate overtime pay and highlighted his fear of raising the issue with management:

The 12-hour shift is still a mess. We get tired too much. The calculation of overtime is not done… I did a 12-hour shift and then was forced to do another 8-hour shift and there were no overtime calculations. When I used to work for KCM [another copper mining company], it was different [they paid proper overtime]. Sometimes you are forced [to continue without complaining]. If you become too argumentative … maybe you won’t be able to renew your contract.    

Health and Safety
The Mines Safety Department director, Mooya Lumamba, told Human Rights Watch that he had met with the chief executive officers of Sino Metals, CCS, and NFCA after the November 2011 report release and told them to “rectify things you [Human Rights Watch] observed and to put their houses in order.” Both the government and the CNMC subsidiaries have responded to public concerns with positive engagement, Human Rights Watch said, though problems remain.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Workers continue to encounter problems getting replacements when their personal protective equipment is damaged. Workers from three of the four CNMC subsidiaries (all but China Luanshya Mine) report that management tells them that it cannot replace equipment before the end of a set time frame, because management fears that the miners will sell it in the market. This leaves miners working in damaged equipment until the timeframe ends, exposing them needlessly to workplace hazards.

One miner from CCS told Human Rights Watch: “There is sulfur dioxide, lots of smoke in the smelter. The respirators we are using are not recommended for that work for a long period and they are saying that we have to use them for one year… The discharging temperature on the floor is 1,170 degrees Celsius. After two, three days the leather gloves get bent. But they say we have to use them for eight days.”

One of the miners interviewed said there was an easy solution to the management’s concerns: exchange the damaged PPE for new equipment, so the miner would still only have one set – which he would be required to wear each day, and therefore could not sell. There are other potential solutions, including marking the issued equipment so that firms can monitor it to ensure it is not sold. In recent communications with Human Rights Watch, CNMC has said that it is open to suggestions concerning the exchange of damaged PPE.

Human Rights Watch continues to urge the Zambian government to ensure that all copper-mining firms regularly replace PPE that is damaged in the course of work.

Threats and Intimidation Underground
Miners described being pressured by Chinese managers and Zambian supervisors to work in unsafe areas, in violation of both national mining regulations and international labor law. A worker at Sino Metals told Human Rights Watch: “The managers don’t concentrate on their workers even though they are working in very dangerous areas. They just need the job to be done. Once you refuse, [you will lose your job]. They [will not] give you another contract.”

Human Rights Watch recommends that CNMC’s subsidiaries hire sufficient safety officers to conduct the necessary preventative inspections and safety training to better protect workers. The firms should ensure that their safety officers have the authority to overrule, without reprisal, a boss or manager’s decision to send workers into a potentially unsafe area. A veteran miner at China Luanshya Mine said: “[The firm’s safety officers] do the inspections but the problem is that they’re toothless. [When the mine was under previous ownership] they would recommend to close an area [when it was unsafe], but that’s not the case now [under CNMC]. They can’t do anything.”

The same veteran miner provided a recent example of a problem that was ignored:

What I’ve noticed is that people will report [safety concerns], but they are intimidated even by our local Zambian supervisors. Our company policy is good, but we’re not putting it into reality. We had a situation just last week with the ventilation, the fans underground stopped working and there was a lot of dust underground. And when we reported to the responsible officials, they were not comfortable and said just keep working.

Inspections and enforcement of safe working conditions need to become a higher priority for CNMC’s Zambian subsidiaries, workers said.

Mines Safety Department (MSD)
Workers in all four subsidiaries reported that they rarely see inspectors, and when they do, it’s generally in response to an accident and the inspector often only goes to the management offices. “We haven’t seen any safety inspectors from MSD,” a miner at China Luanshya Mine told Human Rights Watch. “We only saw one after we had an accident, after two guys were almost electrocuted.” An attendant at Sino Metals similarly told Human Rights Watch: “It takes some months or even a year for the safety inspector to pass when you are working. Maybe if there is an accident, you see them.”

The Mines Safety Department disputed workers’ claims that they rarely perform inspections, and said that they are doing their best with minimal resources. Musukwa told Human Rights Watch that, “Our principal value is that the Mines Safety Department’s presence in the mining industry should be preventative.”

Through the end of 2012, the Mines Safety Department was understaffed and underfunded to an extent that made it unable to carry out the necessary preventative inspections. Human Rights Watch reported in November 2011 that almost half of the department’s inspector positions were vacant, due to a hiring freeze that preceded the Sata government. Lumamba, the department director, told Human Rights Watch in October that they had still been unable to fill vacant inspector positions: “We haven’t recruited anyone else. It’s still the same, 26 of 60 positions are vacant overall. We have only hired someone to replace someone who has retired.”

Yet, in 2013, there appears to be notable progress. Lumamba told Human Rights Watch by email in January that the Mines Safety Department’s budget “has shot up” from 3.11 million Kwacha (US$600,000) in 2012 to 5.66 million Kwacha (US$1,090,000) in 2013 and that the “budget was approved by parliament late last year so we hope to be receiving better monthly funding.” Lumamba also reported that the department has “advertised in our daily newspapers positions for six Inspectors” and that, “We hope to recruit them soon and then again advertise for more positions.”

The budget increase for the Mines Safety Department – and the resulting potential to hire additional safety inspectors – is a very positive development, Human Rights Watch said. The Zambian government needs to ensure that the department consistently receives the money earmarked for it and on time. This has been a recurring problem, as Lumamba told Human Rights Watch in October:

In January, February, March, and April we got the allocation [of funds]. In May we were told that we had no allocation for May. Then we got the funding, [but] it came too late…. Even if the budget is bigger, in the actual allocations we are very much behind. It should be on average 260 million [Zambian Kwacha] (US$49,000) per month, [but we have missed months]…. By December, we will not have been funded for four months, which means I’ll lose a billion [Kwacha].

Lumamba also told Human Rights Watch that the Chinese-run mines should give priority to safety and dedicate funds of their own toward improving worker conditions:

They should not [always] wait for government inspectors to do [inspections], they should be self-regulating. They should learn to spend money on safety and other areas…. The Chinese[-run] mines don’t pay attention to small things like PPE, dust. On the big things which kill immediately, they take care of that. The small things they neglect.

Finally, the Zambian government should quickly enact a longstanding proposal to increase the fines that the Mines Safety Department can impose for breaches of mining and explosives regulations. As reported by Human Rights Watch in its 2011 report, the current fines are so low as to provide almost no deterrent effect for companies. For breaking a mining regulation, the proposed measure would increase the fine from the current 135,000 Kwacha (US$26) to 600,000 Kwacha (US$115) – a considerable increase in local terms but still a small sum for large companies. Lumamba told Human Rights Watch by email in January that “the new fines are yet to be implemented” and need Justice Ministry sign-off.

Health Care for Workers and Their Families
CCS and Sino Metals continue to limit the number of miners’ child dependents for whom they will provide health care at the Chinese-owned Sino-Zam Hospital. Miners from these CNMC subsidiaries with more than two children have to choose which two children will receive firm-provided health care at the Chinese-owned hospital and which children, if they fall ill, will go to the public hospital. A worker at CCS told Human Rights Watch:

As a family, if someone feels sick, automatically you have to take her to the hospital…. I have to choose two of the five, and take the others to the government hospital with my own money. Imagine that money, I could buy a bag of mealie-meal, sugar.

Another CCS miner said: “We are only allowed two children and a spouse. You can imagine if you have six children, where do you take the other four?”

As Human Rights Watch reported in 2011, CCS and Sino Metals are the only multinational copper mining firms to impose such a limit for dependent care.

Miners also reported that there were frequently no working ambulances available at the worksites to transport them in case of emergency. They said they often have to rely on private cars or company vehicles. Many also said that the firm-run hospitals are woefully understaffed – though so, too, are most government hospitals. A miner at China Luanshya Mine reported that China Luanshya Hospital has only two doctors for the more than 2,800 employees and their dependents, and that one of those doctors is a superintendent who does not practice.

CNMC should ensure that its subsidiaries have a sufficient number of operating ambulances. In addition, China Luanshya Mine should consider hiring additional doctors for its hospital, to ensure that the firm’s miners and their families can receive adequate care.

Union Activity
Human Rights Watch documented in its 2011 report that two CNMC subsidiaries, Sino Metals and CCS, blocked Zambia’s oldest mining union, the Mineworkers Union of Zambia (MUZ), from representing workers there. Management at these firms had accepted only NUMAW, violating workers’ right to freedom of association. Sino Metals and CCS were the only multinational copper mining firms in Zambia where workers were blocked from joining one of the country’s two longstanding unions.

Over the past year, there has been considerable progress in establishing MUZ’s presence at both firms. National MUZ officials told Human Rights Watch in October that the process has been completed at Sino Metals, where workers now have their choice of union representation. Several miners at Sino Metals told Human Rights Watch that this was an important development. National MUZ officials said that they are in the process of formally opening a branch at CCS, which they hoped to complete soon.

Despite progress toward permitting workers to join the union of their choice, Human Rights Watch has received reports at all four CNMC operations of harassment and threatening treatment of union representatives and members. A worker in the NUMAW union at China Luanshya Mine reported being threatened by Chinese management if union representatives are too adamant in their advocacy for improvements: “The threats are always there….If they see you pushing, pushing so hard, they start threatening. What they say is don’t kill the goose that is giving you the golden egg.”

A union representative at China Luanshya Minetold Human Rights Watch that the union’s relationship with management is “gradually growing” but that, “We have lost two of our union leaders, who were fired for unspecified reasons by the management.” A union leader at NFCA likewise reported that management tries to “block us from attending meetings” and said that branch officials were routinely subject to intimidation.

In addition to threats and sanctions against union leadership, a worker at CCS reported that members are also sometimes penalized simply for joining a union:

The relationship between the company and the union representatives is not cordial, not friendly. Some of the guys were demoted after joining the union. They were crane drivers and were brought back down to workman. Once you join the union, there is no chance for promotion. They think you waste much of their time.

Complaints of harassment and threats against union representatives are not unique to these Chinese-run mines. Human Rights Watch documented and reported on similar complaints by union branch officials at other multinational companies in Zambia.

Verbal Abuse by Supervisors
Workers described facing frequent verbal abuse from their Chinese supervisors, showing continued tensions between management and the miners, despite some labor improvements during 2012. Workers reported that their managers sometimes used insulting, degrading language. A miner at Sino Metals told Human Rights Watch that his Chinese boss told him, “You are just like a tree, you can’t think.” A Zambian member of management at one of the CNMC subsidiaries confirmed that he had heard Chinese managers insult Zambian workers in this way.

Workers also report that Chinese supervisors seem to curse at the Zambians in Chinese. A miner at NFCA told Human Rights Watch:

You don’t know what they are talking about, [just] that they are laughing at you. I asked a CNMC official in London what [these curses] mean, and he said it was like insulting your mother. They’re fond of using those words when you are on their site and they are unhappy… It seems to be a very big insult in Chinese.

A worker at China Luanshya Mine reported that his Chinese supervisors would boast:

“As Chinese, we are rich and you people are poor and your governments depend on us, we have the money.” They would even say that we as Zambians failed to run the mines so they have to come to run them for us. And that no wonder we have had these closures in the past, it’s because we demand a lot. They say, “We will pay you peanuts, you are better off than in the streets.”

Although governments have the primary responsibility for promoting and ensuring respect for human rights, corporations also have responsibilities in this area, as increasingly recognized by international law and other norms. These norms reflect an expectation that corporations should have policies and procedures to prevent human rights abuses in their operations, Human Rights Watch said. Companies should make sure their managers respect human rights, avoid complicity in abuses, and provide adequate remedies if they occur.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country