Zambia is one of those rare places where, when people ask, ‘how are you?,’ they expect an answer. And just about everyone asks. It’s a form of greeting, not completed until you answer and ask the same.
Enter Chinese investors, who by and large are not known for their warm and fuzzy approach to their manual laborers. What arguably works in China when managing poor farmers-turned-construction-workers or-mine-workers – demanding long hours and no days off, beating those who mess up, arbitrarily docking pay – doesn’t work so well in Zambia. It causes riots.
Collum Coal Mine made headlines last year when hundreds of workers gathered to protest that they weren’t getting paid what they were owed, and management opened fire on them with pellet guns, wounding 12.
Shocking by any standard to outside observers, but it wasn’t the first time this happened in Zambia. Chinese-run Chambishi Copper Smelter also opened fire on protesting workers in 2005, wounding five. And at 2009 at Collum, workers protesting the lack of safety equipment or adequate pay spooked the Chinese management into heading for the hills (literally – there are mountains nearby) until things calmed down.
And yet when I talked with Chinese in Zambia about the Collum shooting, some called it an “accident,” understandable, at least, because the Chinese mine managers felt under threat and, anyway, didn’t want their compound to get looted.
“I hadn’t realized this was such a big deal,” one commented. Others called the shooting an “accident,” and said the Chinese managers pointed at the ground to scare off the workers, but the pellets bounced up and hit them.
From the perspective of many Chinese investing in Zambia, they’re here doing good. They’re creating jobs, they’re building infrastructure, they’re contributing to the Zambian economy. They think Zambians should be grateful.
But they’re also here to make a profit, and too many have generous profit margins at the expense of their Zambian workers’ safety and dignity.
And workers have reacted – with protests, with trade labor negotiations, and with a vote in September that put a new president in power, because the old one was seen as being too busy cozying up to Chinese investors to protect the rights of Zambian workers.
New president Michael Sata has promised big things in the next 90 days – more money in people’s pockets, better enforcement of the labor laws, more tax for extractive industries like copper, so Zambia can benefit a little more and perhaps even use the money to help improve ordinary people’s lives.
Here, in a country where more than 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, many do believe Chinese investment is a good thing. But so is respect. The latter without the former won’t put food on your table; the former without the latter is intolerable.
Zambians have just sent that message; it’s up to individual Chinese investors to decide whether they’ll heed it – and what price they’re willing to risk paying if they don’t.