Suppose a manager of a British mining company picked up a gun and opened fire on his African workforce? What if the company concerned paid its Zambian miners less than the legal minimum wage? Suppose relations on the shop floor became so poisonous that furious workers chose to crush a manager to death?
If a British-based mining house like Anglo American or Rio Tinto had experienced any of this, I strongly suspect that popular protest would have overwhelmed the company concerned, sending its share price into free-fall and casting its very future into doubt.
Yet all of the above has happened at a Chinese-owned mine in Zambia. When workers at Collum coal mine protested about poor wages and working conditions in 2010, their Chinese managers responded by opening fire with live rounds. In fairness, they were not shooting to kill: no one actually died, but 11 of the miners suffered bullet wounds.
The Chinese argued they were acting in self defence, and Beijing made clear that should charges be pressed against them, bilateral relations would suffer. Zambia, unable to stand up to its biggest foreign investor, duly caved in: no criminal case was ever brought against the managers.
This year, protests at Collum have continued, spurred by the fact that its Chinese owners pay their employees less than the national minimum wage for shopworkers. On Saturday, the miners crushed a 50-year-old Chinese manager to death with a trolley.
So the next time you next read of a multi-billion dollar deal between China and a poor African country, think of what has happened at Collum mine. While Beijing likes to claim that it forges “win-win partnerships” with African nations, the reality is that one side tends to win a great deal more than the other. The outlines of these agreements are always similar: China promises to build lots of useful infrastructure, particularly roads and railways, in return for privileged access to the country’s natural resources.
But this has three consequences. First, the minerals that China extracts are always worth more than the infrastructure it builds. Put bluntly, Beijing always takes out more than it puts in (that is the whole point of the exercise). Second, the workforce that actually builds the roads, railways etc is often Chinese, so the number of jobs created is relatively small. Third, the skills needed to maintain this infrastructure are not always passed on, meaning that much of it will probably fall to bits a decade or two hence.
Finally—and most seriously of all in the case of Zambia—the Chinese are not always exemplary managers of the mines and oilfields they are handed control over. The reasons for this are interesting. The separation between workers and management that is always evident tends to be particularly wide in these cases. That’s for a simple reason: the Chinese managers and their African workers generally have no language in common. Meanwhile, the Africans cannot help noticing that no Chinese ever has an African boss. There is clearly a glass ceiling above which local employees will not rise. That’s before we comes to matters like health and safety, working conditions and wages.
I would hazard a guess that, in general, many Africans would prefer to work for established Western mining companies. That is certainly the view of Michael Sata, the Zambian president who won power largely because of widespread unease over the consequences of Chinese investment.
While opposition leader in 2007, Sata said: “We want the Chinese to leave and the old colonial rulers to return. They exploited our natural resources too, but at least they took good care of us. They built schools, taught us their language and brought us the British civilisation. At least Western capitalism has a human face; the Chinese are only out to exploit us.”
In Zambia, at least, that seems to be the popular view.