Zambian Miners Riot Over Labor Dispute

Hundreds of Zambian miners working at Chinese-owned NFCA Mining rioted late Monday over a labor dispute with management and blocked a main highway, hampering traffic for several hours, union officials said Wednesday.

Union officials said the miners were protesting the company’s decision to sign a mining contract with a contractor without informing union leaders.

“Management outsourced a contractor to carry out mining operations without informing the workers,” a union official said. The contractor had already started the process of signing new labor contracts with the workers, the official said.

Chinese-owned enterprises have been pumping millions of dollars into Zambia’s mining sector in search of unexploited rich-ore bodies for resource-hungry China. But the Chinese companies’ labor policies are largely unpopular with unions, activists and opposition politicians in Zambia.

Union officials say that workers at the NFCA mine remain the lowest paid in the country. There have been protests at other Chinese-run operations in Zambia in recent years over working conditions and wages, most recently at the Collumn coal mine in Sinazongwe district, during which at least 13 miners were shot by Chinese supervisers in one incident.

On Monday, police fired tear gas to disperse the rioting miners, who had used logs and stones to block the road linking Kitwe, the largest mining city on the province, to Chingola, in the Copperbelt Province. At least 12 miners were arrested during the riots, police said.

Martin Malama, Zambia’s commanding police officer in the Copperbelt Province, said calm had returned to NFCA’s mining units following the police intervention.

“We are going to release the arrested miners today after they have recorded admission of guilt statements,” he said by telephone from Kitwe.

According to Mr. Malama, although the workers had initially been given permission to demonstrate peacefully, it turned violent after a “handful” of them, together with other local people, tried to disrupt traffic.

Oswel Munyenyembe, general secretary of the Miners Union of Zambia, said union representatives were in talks with management Wednesday to resolve the issue.

Union representatives have accused management of breaching the contract signed by workers by not informing them or paying them terminal benefits since they would now work for the outsourced company. Company officials couldn’t be reached for immediate comment.

NFCA, a unit of China Nonferrous Metals Co., operates Luanshya Copper Mines, Chambishi Copper Mines and the 150,000 tons-a-year Chambishi Copper Smelter. The company is also developing the $350 million Milyanshi Copper project, expected to start output in December.

By Wednesday, heavily armed policemen were still deployed around the various units belonging to the company.

In October, at least 13 miners were shot during a riot at another Chinese-owned mine in Zambia’s southern province.

Union officials allege that the Chinese, who have invested heavily in Zambia’s mining sector, have poor labor and safety policies.

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