Zambia, known for its considerable mineral wealth and currently Africa’s largest copper producer, has attracted significant Chinese investment since the 1990s. While these investments have created jobs and increased national copper production, human rights groups decry the copper mines’ poor labor conditions that have existed since China began to invest in the sector. A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report examines the labor practices of Chinese state-owned copper mines and calls on the Zambian and Chinese governments to take the necessary measures to enforce labor laws and conform to international labor standards. Advocacy organizations like HRW hope that shedding light on these violations will ensure that further economic development of Zambia does not jeopardize the health and safety of its workers.

Observed labor violations in the Chinese-owned mines include low wages, long working hours, a lack of safety standards, and the undercutting of domestic mining unions. While dangers are certainly inherent to copper mining, Zambian government representatives admit that safety conditions in Chinese-owned copper mines are the poorest in Zambia. For example, in 2005, forty-six Zambian workers died as a result of a mine explosion, many of whom were initially unidentified because the mine operators did not keep employee records. Contrary to copper mining and processing standards throughout Zambia, the Chinese-owned mines often require twelve-hour shifts as opposed to the eight-hour shifts outlined in Zambian mining standards. The HRW report further details safety and health hazards resulting from toxins and dust inhalation, as well as the lack of proper attire and equipment to prevent these hazards. Notably, HRW points out that the poor safety standards in Zambia’s Chinese-run mines resemble the labor abuses occurring in mines in China.

Zambia’s Mines Safety Department, situated in the Ministry of Mines and Mineral Development, is responsible for enforcing the country’s mining regulations. However, human rights groups report that the department is virtually ineffective, failing to enforce both domestic and international labor law in the Chinese-owned copper mines. While regulation of all Zambian mines is subpar, human rights group emphasize that the Chinese-owned are by far some of the worst in the country. International Labor Organization Convention No. 176 concerning Safety and Health in Mines sets out the basic mine safety standards that states and employers must follow. Not only do Chinese employers fail to comply with these standards, but they also tend to discriminate against employees for affiliation with non-Chinese labor unions even though freedom of association is protected under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Domestically, mine safety and freedom of association are outlined within the Zambian Industrial and Labour Relations Act 269 and the Minimum Wages and Conditions of Employment Act 267.

HRW has called on the Chinese government to convene the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation to establish mechanisms to address labor conditions and compliance with international human rights standards in foreign investments. HRW also recommends that the Zambian government improve the functionality of the Mines Safety Department and investigate and prosecute mining company officials using threats and intimidation to force miners to work in hazardous areas.

In response to the HRW report, the Chinese Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corporation (CNM), which operates four copper mines in Zambia, said that “language and cultural differences” could have resulted in “misunderstandings.” Since the report’s release, however, CNM has promised to conduct a general investigation, and also to rectify existing malpractices. Even so, human rights groups continue to emphasize the need for involvement of the Zambian government if labor conditions and standards are to improve.

Human rights abuses associated with Chinese involvement in Africa are not limited to Zambia. Recently, China has sold arms to the Sudanese government, some of which have been used to remove indigenous southerners from their lands to make room for Chinese development of oil fields. Additionally, the government of Zimbabwe has become heavily reliant on Chinese lending and investment in exchange for natural resources; human rights advocates note with frustration the detrimental social impact of growing Chinese alliance with Zimbabwe, allowing Zimbabwe to continue practices contrary to international norms and pressure.

The consequences of China’s increased involvement in Africa remain the subject of much debate in the human rights community. While China’s willingness to build roads in Gabon, develop mines in Zambia, and buy oil in Sudan has allowed for increased economic development, human rights advocates continue to address the lack of respect for human rights in the region. As Zambia’s mining industry grows, advocates will continue to make the case that sacrificing domestic and international labor standards, along with other human rights, is too big a price to pay to attract foreign direct investment.