August 20th, 2012 | Caixin The Killing of a Miner in Zambia
Steady undercurrents of dissatisfaction among workers and mine management culminated in yet another tragedy at the Collum Coal Mine
There was no rumor or mystery surrounding the death of Wu Shengzai last August. At 50 years old, Wu left China for the first time in his life for the most tantalizing of prospects – the possibility of striking it rich in Africa. But Collumn Coal Mine, run by the Xu family from China, had a history marred with mob violence and shootings.
In 2011, Wu left his hometown in Jiangxi Province and took a train to Nanchang to hop on a plane to Hong Kong. From Hong Kong, he went to Nairobi before ending up in Zambia’s capital of Lusaka. Wu began work on a contract with the Collum Coalmine which would pay him 200,000 yuan over a period of three years.
But Wu never get the chance to complete his contract. Violent worker protests erupted in early August resulted in the death of Wu and injury of the several other Chinese workers. The Chinese embassy in Zambia said that Chinese employees working at Collum Coal Mine were recovering from the shock of the situation. But the interruption in the mine’s operations didn’t last long, and production resumed in roughly one week.
A Protest on Payday
Saturday is the day when workers line up to collect paychecks at the offices of Collum Coal Mine. But on August 4, not a single worker was present. The Chinese managers were used to occasional strikes, and didn’t give the calm a second thought. According to witnesses, at around noon, over 300 people gathered near a mine shaft and began attacking the Chinese management. Two Chinese managers and two Zambian security guards were injured.
Around 2 p.m. that afternoon, workers moved from the nearby mine shaft to another, and began a demonstration. Two Chinese employees were injured and their belongings were stolen. Around 3 p.m., several hundred workers moved to another mine shaft where Wu was working. Wu and four other Chinese workers quickly tried to escape through a small back door. One of them said they believed the main entrance had been blocked and decided to go deeper into the shaft to seek shelter.
But the protestors trailed behind at the entrance and continued throw rocks and bricks into the mine. Someone then pushed a mining cart into the shaft. Four were able to escape the path of the cart, but an already injured Wu was unable to move out of the way in time. He was killed on impact.
At 5 p.m., policemen arrived on the scene and the crowds of protestors quickly dispersed.
The cause of the strike centered on wage concerns. In July, the Zambian Labor Department released a new law raising the minimum wage from 420,000 Zambian Kwacha to 700,000, an increase of 66 percent. A year ago, the highest salary at Collum Coal Mine was 21,000 Kwacha per day while the lowest salary was 16,000. Employers fought the legislation, saying the increase to wages was too great, but a legal case never materialized.
Instead of easing tension between employers and workers, the new legislation inflamed longstanding disagreements. Zambian Labor Union Secretary General Joseph Chewe said after the incident that under the government’s new requirements, Collum Coal Mine had formulated a new labor contract with its workers just two days before the fatal riots.
Wu Shengzai’s family said subordinates of the mine management were never informed of the wage changes. In addition to this, the mine’s workers were never notified of a wage increase.
But an anonymous source involved in the negotiations said the violent protests were not directly related to the wage case but were instigated by a vocal minority that insisted on carrying out retaliatory attacks against the Chinese management. He said: “Zambia has high unemployment rates. Many of these people congregate near mining sites. Some have been fired from mines. Their motivation is to exploit situations like this for their own gain to loot when they can.”
The Management Model
The latest blow-up at the Collum Coal Mine was at least the third major clash to occur since the owner, Xu Jianxue, bought the mine in 2003. The first incident happened in February 2010, when a Chinese supervisor Zhong Tinghui was killed. The same year in October, two Chinese managers opened fire on African mine workers during a riot, injuring 11. “A few days later, some died, but we were used to it,” a Chinese worker said after returning to China.
Coal mine owner Xu Jianxu is from Leping City in Jiangxi Province. In 1991, he worked as an English translator at the Jiangxi International Economic and Technical Cooperation Corp. and helped teams go to Zambia. When the work was finished, Jian stayed there.
He later established Yangtz Jiang Enterprise Ltd. as a project contractor. Business expanded and around 2000, he sent for his four brothers to join him. Yangzi Jiang Enterprise began to make a name for itself in Zambia by taking on several government and public works projects including the Zambian Anti-corruption Building, a school funded by the Japanese Water Corp., the Zambian International airport, a mausoleum for a former Zambian president, as well as the renovation project of the president’s residence. Through these projects, the family began to build a network of contacts and establish a firm financial base.
In 2003, Zambian government liberated the government control on mining sites and invited investors. Xu became the only bidder of the site of Collum Coal Mine in the southern part of Zambia and along the border. The area was known for poor security and poor mineral quality. But Xu was confident about his connections and capacity.
According to information from the Leping City government, Collum Coal Mine employs more than 70 Chinese workers and over 800 local workers, producing 20,000 tons of coal a month. But at the same time, labor disputes have long existed at Collum, not only between Chinese and local workers, but also the Chinese themselves.
Former Collum supervisor, Wang Fatai, said management at Collum Coal Mine is brutal. Each of Xu Jianxue’s brothers oversees a mining site. The brothers are constantly embroiled in conflict and competition which results in hostile working conditions for workers.
The company management also has no regulations to speak of. Wang said while there all sorts of fines at the Collum: “All the money goes to the boss, but the unpopular things are done by us supervisors, who face the workers directly.”
Zambian Labor Ministry Chief Fackson Shamenda expressed regret on August 6 over the death and said the perpetrators would be dealt with. He also said, “I don’t understand why the situation is so tense between Chinese management at Collum and the mine’s workers.”
Worsening Conditions, Conflicts
After the events of 2010, Collum Coalmine was said to be working on labor relations. Wages increased from three to five fold. But the improvements were short-lived.
Collum Coal Mine is one of the enterprises that appeared during the 1995 to 2002 period when Chinese government reduced aid to African countries and many state-owned companies left the continent. Many Chinese workers that had been in Africa from the early days of Chinese aid – and were familiar with the continent – leveraged established connections and channels to start businesses. Many grew and formed unique, locally rooted Chinese enterprises.
Unlike major state-owned enterprises, private Chinese companies are often forced to scrape bones for meat. They operate in areas with weak profitability and low added-value. They often have a hard time avoiding risk, and their operational problems can revolve around disputes over wages, workplace conditions and benefits.
Language barriers also made it difficult for employers to communicate with employees, said a staffer at the Chinese embassy. Many who go to Africa haven’t received the proper training. On a daily basis, communication between managers and workers is comprised of hand gestures.
For many of these types of companies, doing business in Africa is centered on relationships with governments. But tension has mounted after repeatedly conflicts. An Africa researcher for the Chinese magazine Far and Wide Journal, Tao Yong, said: “Distilled in the Collum Coal Mine situation is the ongoing conflict between local and central governments, between developing and developed parts of the country and between the ruling party and the opposition.”
By staff reporters Zhang Boling and He Xin