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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 July 2007, 18:01 GMT 19:01 UK
Zambia miners 'see little reward'
By Orla Guerin
BBC News, Zambia

Graves of 46 Zambian mine workers who died at Chambishi mine in Zambia's Copperbelt
Thomas, buried by Chambishi mine, was his family's breadwinner

Thomas Mumba loved to sing in the church choir and dreamt of recording a CD of gospel music.

At 23 he did not drink or smoke. He preferred to spend his time worshipping his Lord.

His mother Justina hoped his future would be far from the mines that pockmark the landscape of Zambia's Copperbelt.

"I wanted him to become a pastor, or a reverend," she said, "because of his good morals. People loved him very much."

Instead, Thomas lies buried near the gates of Chambishi mine, which is run by NFC Africa Mining, a Chinese state enterprise.

He was killed two years ago, together with 45 workmates, in a blast at a subsidiary mine.

They came to make profit, not to look after the lives of the people who were giving them profit
Justina Mumba

African nations are used to being plundered - the West perfected the art. Now the new scramble for Africa's resources is coming from the east.

With a voracious economy to feed, China is devouring raw materials - oil, copper, cobalt and zinc.

And it is wooing governments, including those who trample on human rights, with soft loans, aid and arms sales.

For all its taking out of Africa, it is putting a lot back in - creating jobs, making investments, building roads, railways, and hospitals.

Beijing maintains it is a "win-win" situation.

Many Zambians have their doubts, especially those in the Copperbelt.

'No-one listened'

Thomas's grave and those of his work mates form a semi-circle on a patch of neglected ground.

A Zambian woman is given instructions by a Chinese worker
Some Zambian workers say they fear their Chinese bosses

After the explosion, Justina did not have a body to bury.

"We didn't identify even a finger or a toe," she says.

"He was in pieces."

She says that before his death, Thomas and other employees were concerned by safety standards at the factory, but no-one listened.

"He was saying I'm afraid, because anything can happen," she adds.

Kneeling at his grave, Justina mourns for a devoted son who was also the family bread-winner.

She claims the Chinese care more about money than safety.

"They came to make profit, not to look after the lives of the people who were giving them profit," she says.

It is a short walk from the graveyard to the entrance to the mine.

Inside, the management gave us a guided tour above ground, although we were only allowed a glimpse below.

'Cultural gap'

They are keen to show the positive side of Chinese investment.

Before they came, the mine was a monument to decay.

Maybe we think it's normal, but other people think it's too harsh
Xu Ruiyong
NFC Africa Mining

Now it employs 2,000 people, and crucially for Beijing, it makes a profit.

But in spite of soaring copper prices, some miners are paid only $100 a month.

They complain of exploitation - "slave labour" in the words of one.

The mine's deputy chief executive, Xu Ruiyong, speaks of "local friends" and says there is a cultural gap.

"Maybe we think it's normal, but other people think it's too harsh," he adds.

Mr Xu says part of China's purpose in opening the mine was to help the local economy, but there is little sign of improvement in the township of Chambishi.

'Cheap labour'

In his cramped two-roomed home, one young miner told me about his struggle to survive on what he earns at the mine.

Mine worker covers his face with a scarf
Union leaders say Chinese mines have the worst safety records

His children are not going to school, because he cannot afford to send them.

He has planted a tiny vegetable garden to try to feed his family.

"The Chinese believe in cheap labour," he said.

"They are just here to take our copper."

And he said workers could not open their mouths to any Chinese boss for fear of losing their jobs.

"At the moment, I am desperate," he said.

"As soon as I find employment somewhere I will leave the Chinese."

Hands-off approach

The Chinese are not the only foreigners exploiting Zambia's raw materials, but they are the ones who arouse the greatest fear and hostility - in spite of their increasing stake here, or perhaps because of it.

For poor African governments, China can be an attractive partner

Beijing is about to pour another $300m into mining and manufacturing here, according to a recent announcement by the Zambian government.

That is on top of $900m which China has already earmarked for the Copperbelt.

Many jobs are promised, but the Mineworkers' Union of Zambia is concerned about what kind of jobs they will be.

The union's president, Rayford Mbulu, says the Chinese still have the worst safety record and pay the lowest wages.

But for poor African governments, China can be an attractive partner.

It does not demand reform, and takes a hands-off approach - that makes a change from institutions like the World Bank.

'No strings attached'

And it is a selling point for Zambia's Finance Minister Ng'andu Magande, who welcomes deals with no strings attached.

Zambia's Finance Minister, Ng'andu Magande (archive)
So far in Zambia, I haven't seen the strings - if they are there, they are nylon ones
Ng'andu Magande
Zambian Finance Minister

"I think that is where perhaps Chinese investment, at the moment, is more attractive for us," he says.

"So far in Zambia, I haven't seen the strings. If they are there, they are nylon ones. I don't see them. They are very thin."

But African economies are already suffering the downside of Chinese investment.

It comes in the form of cheap Chinese imports and Chinese labour.

And there are political concerns, like Beijing's cosy relationship with the governments of Zimbabwe and Sudan.

Before leaving the Copperbelt we saw illegal miners in action - young boys in flimsy shoes, risking their lives, hoping to feed China's endless hunger.

Africa's people tend not to benefit from its riches.

The fear is that Beijing is just here to take what it can get.




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