Congo’s laborers find harsh conditions at Chinese-run plants

Congo Here in one of the richest mineral belts in the world, where copper and cobalt almost seem to burst from the rugged earth, the people have grown accustomed to foreign opportunists. Anger is mounting, however, at some of the newest arrivals: businessmen from China.

At lunch hour outside the smelters near Lubumbashi, the gritty capital of southern Congo’s mining country, workers in fraying clothes and canvas sneakers rattle off complaints about their Chinese employers: wages of as little as $3 a day, backbreaking hours and a lack of safety equipment, which many said had led to severe on-the-job injuries and even deaths.

“We don’t have a choice but to keep working. Life is hard, and we have to survive,” said Andre, 26, whose younger brother died in an accident last year while toiling on the graveyard shift at a private, Chinese-owned smelter. While raking a slag pit early one morning, a sudden noise startled 21-year-old Akahika, who lost his balance, fell into the scorching slag and was burned to death almost instantly.

Like many workers who were interviewed for this story, Andre asked that his full name not be used, in order to shield him from retribution by his employers. His story and those of other workers offer a glimpse into a little-known ? and little-regulated ? slice of China’s dramatically expanding relationship with the world’s poorest continent.

As Beijing increasingly looks to Africa as a market for its inexpensive goods and a major source of raw materials, war-torn Congo, which boasts enormous natural wealth yet needs help with almost everything else, has emerged as a key trading partner. As the countries prepare to cement a record $9.5 billion trade deal, however, Congolese activists say that Beijing is turning a blind eye to substandard labor practices at the dozens of small, privately owned Chinese smelters that have cropped up across the southern mining province of Katanga.

A leading Congolese watchdog group, Action Against Impunity for Human Rights, says it has documented dozens of cases of abuses. In one case from last year, a worker said he was punched repeatedly by three supervisors, including one Chinese man. In another, a worker suffered debilitating burns on his legs when he fell into an oven, and his employer refused to pay the medical bill.

Chinese companies can treat their employees pretty much as they please, the group wrote in a forthcoming report, because workers are desperate and local authorities either lack the capacity to enforce domestic labor laws or are easily bribed to ignore violations. In June, civil servants in Katanga went on strike after several weeks without receiving paychecks.

“The weakness of our government, for the Chinese, represents a business opportunity,” said Jean-Pierre Okemba, one of the rights group’s investigators. “We don’t want a relationship like that.”

Chinese officials say these are private businesses, unattached to the government in Beijing, and that they have no power to regulate them. China’s trade with Africa soared to a record $107 billion last year, surpassing the volume of trade between Africa and the United States for the first time. If the mammoth China-Congo trade deal is approved, Beijing would win lucrative mining concessions in exchange for building roads, railways and other infrastructure that Congo desperately needs.

“They keep their workers in really the bare minimum of conditions,” said Jean-Pierre Muteba, a Congolese trade union leader. “They operate right on the limits of what is legal.”

Isaac Sesemba, 24, worked last year at Huaxin Mining, a small smelter hidden behind a red gate a few miles outside Lubumbashi. He handled raw metals but was never given gloves, and though a noxious metal dust constantly swirled around the compound, few workers had masks.

Sesemba earned $3 a day, but despite working for nearly a year, he was never offered a contract, as Congolese labor laws require. When copper and cobalt prices plummeted last year during the worldwide economic crisis, the company shut down and Sesemba and dozens of other workers were laid off, some of them still owed days’ worth of pay.

A McClatchy Newspapers reporter attempted last month to interview officials at Huaxin and four other Chinese smelters but was denied entry repeatedly. Wu Zexian, China’s ambassador to Congo, said he was aware of the allegations but that the Chinese government wasn’t responsible for the actions of private companies.

“The Chinese government’s position is very clear: Every Chinese company working overseas must strictly follow the laws of the country it works in,” he said.

He added: “I have confidence in the Congolese authorities to regulate their activities.”

Experts said, however, that Beijing did indeed have leverage over private entrepreneurs, most of whom are backed by financing from state-owned Chinese banks.

“Any Chinese operation in Congo has a fairly strong level of state ownership in it,” said one Western expert who works in Katanga. “The only way they can be operating is if they have liquidity and cash for investment.” She spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to protect her organization’s impartiality.

To be sure, there are few saints in Congo’s mining industry, a rough-and-tumble sector populated by U.S. and European corporate giants and small-time speculators from places such as China, Lebanon and India. In recent years, however, the large Western companies ? such as Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan ? have raised salaries and instituted workplace reforms, often after pressure from domestic politicians and watchdog groups.

The small-scale sector, which has come to be dominated by Chinese entrepreneurs, is far less well-regulated. These individuals don’t own official mining concessions; instead, they purchase raw metals from individuals and process them for export ? often to neighboring Zambia, along a Chinese-built road.

While Beijing likes to describe its investments as a “win-win” for African nations, a case of developing nations helping each other, many Congolese have grown deeply resentful of Chinese business practices. When metals prices plunged late last year, dozens of Chinese firms closed down without warning, leaving hundreds of workers unemployed. Labor activists said that in some cases, workers showed up one morning to find gates padlocked and their employers’ cars missing.

At the time, the governor of Katanga angrily vowed not to allow the firms to return. Several companies have resumed operating in recent months, however, and tired-looking men who muttered that they hated working for the Chinese nonetheless lined up outside the gates of smelters at daybreak, hoping for a day’s pay.

“There’s a sense of racism between the Congolese and the Chinese, and the dynamic has become very antagonistic on the ground,” said Lizzie Parsons, a Congo expert with Global Witness, a British-based watchdog group, “but people are desperate for jobs, so they do it.”

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.