Chinese Companies in Hwange: Inhumane Conditions For Employees?
Mine workers at Hwange Gasification Company are given gumboots or plastic shoes to work in coal ovens. Image by The Citizen Bulletin
Chinese investments in the mining industry continue to raise ire, particularly over poor treatment of employees.
HWANGE (The Citizen Bulletin) — Ishmael Tshuma (not real name), an employee at a Chinese coal mining firm in Hwange, rarely gets enough rest. He works odd hours, but he has to soldier on as employment opportunities are scarce.
“We work like donkeys in these mines. No rest throughout the day. Actually, we work long shifts to ensure that operations are not interrupted, we are not catered for in terms of food, and it is rare to have an off day; otherwise, you will lose a full salary. And the pay is meagre,” laments Tshuma.
Only two big companies Hwange Colliery Company Limited and Makomo Resources, are not owned partly or wholly by the Chinese.
But, other reputable and small and medium companies involved in thining the black rock are all Chinese controlled, thus becoming the biggest employing base in the town.
Chinese companies are mainly involved in construction, mining and operations, which involve hard labour. Cases of alleged ill-treatment of workers in Hwange coal mining firms are common.
Testimonies from former and current employees show that the wages do not commensurate with the labour supplied. Safety during operations has been raised as an issue of concern.
“Despite working for several hours, there is no protective clothing provided. In Chinese companies, it is about money and profits. Safety is not even the least of their concerns. We are not paid allowances for working in dangerous areas.”
Bruce, a mine worker
National Mine Workers Union of Zimbabwe (NMWUZ) says the situation is bad in most Chinese mines in Hwange.
NMWUZ Hwange Branch Organiser Thobekile Shoko says some companies are following the National Employment Council rates. Still, they tend to cut salaries.
This is widespread during machinery breakdown, where the blame is placed on the worker "and money is deducted from their salary".
Zimberly Investments, a coal mining company along Deka River, is cited as the worst, with the workers operating without protective clothes, safety shoes, work suits, and being underpaid.
“They are denied their official off days even taking leave, and they are always fatigued. Their back pay is not being paid. As a union, we are trying our best to discuss with the manager, a Mr Nick, but he keeps on promising, and it’s not changing at all,” adds Shoko.
The Citizen Bulletin established that Zimberly Investment was taken to court by ZDAMWU, but nothing came out of it.
With alleged ill-treatment, workers have over the years responded by staging sit-ins and stay-aways.
Another mines' union based in Hwange, Zimbabwe Diamond and Allied Minerals Workers Union (ZDAMWU) notes the challenges workers face in Chinese mines: poor working environment, poor personal protective equipment (PPE) and remuneration.
ZDAMWU Secretary-General Justice Chinhema says coke production was non-existent before, and these mines who established the coking producing plants are using their workers without proper employee grading.
“Workers are exposed to heat, without heating allowances, at Hwange Gasification Company, gas is seen, and workers are exposed to it, nothing is done to rectify the situation. Workers need respirators. Some are given gumboots or plastic shoes to work in coal ovens.”
Justice Chinhema, ZDAMWU Secretary-General
Chinhema adds that most Chinese companies have not registered their workers with the mining pension fund, NSSA or any funeral or medical insurance company on mining industry regulations and other operational regulations.
“Even where the law says if you are not registered with MIPF, you pay a gratuity of 7.5% every month they don’t pay, casualisation of labour is rampant. Almost everyone employed by these mines is on short fixed contracts, 1 to 3 months, and they earn as they work. They work long hours, 9-12 hours a day, seven days a week, and 31 days a month.”
“When an employee falls sick, they are not paid. Injuries to workers are swept under the carpet because they know they are not registered with NSSA,” says Chinhema.
Safety of mine workers is not of importance to Chinese mine companies in Hwange. Image by BusinessLive
Chinese companies have been accused of not accepting any workers committee or workers council meetings to the detriment of mines employees’ welfare.
A 2019 report by the Auditor-General on the management of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) in mining operations presented to Parliament of Zimbabwe this year reveals the challenges employees face in mines.
The audit was motivated by a pre-study conducted in 2015 and press reports highlighting poor occupational health and safety in mining operations in Zimbabwe.
The Auditor-General says the audit identified that the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development had not adequately monitored OHS issues in mining operations. There was a high risk that mining operators would not comply with OHS regulations that require them to create and maintain a safe working environment.
A former worker at a Chinese mining company who refused to be named narrates his experience at the hands of one popular Chinese company in Hwange.
“I tried to endure at the Hwange Gasification Company, but I realised that my health was failing due to hard labour under harsh conditions, and I left the job.”
A former Chinese mine worker
Contacted for comment Hwange Coal and Gasification Company, Human Resources Manager Bhekezuku Thabete, says their company has made the environment habitable for employees. They strive to comply with all legislation that concerns workers.
“We provide employees with personal protective equipment every six months, we monitor employees health and monitor dust and watering the environment. We have a zero accident policy. We engage in safety talks every day, take all measures to prevent accidents and where they're near misses or incidents, we investigate them. We learn from the near misses or incidents to avoid future recurrent.”
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Thabethe also says they have managed to integrate Zimbabwean safety standards with the Chinese work culture to produce a safe and productive environment where employees can showcase their talents.
“I was seconded by Hwange Colliery to assist the Chinese to conform to our Zimbabwean Human resources and safety standards. My recommendation is that there is a need to have a high level and effective Zimbabwean managers managing Human Resources and Safety portfolios in Chinese companies to ensure compliance. Our workers are our greatest asset. Without them or their efforts, there is no company to talk about.”
Speaking to The Citizen Bulletin, Environmental Management Agency (EMA), Environmental Education and Publicity Officer Mildred Matunga say Occupational Safety Health (OSH) issues are addressed by S.I. 12 of 2007, which was repealed by SI 268 of 2018.
“Hazardous substance use in coal mining is just, but a small component since the use of chemicals in this industry is secondary. Therefore under SI 268 of 2018 regarding coal mining, the Agency mostly regulates transportation, storage and use of petroleum distillates. NSSA is the institution that is mandated with the enforcement of OSH issues in Zimbabwe. However, SI 268 compliments NSSA’s mandate by stipulating the safe handling, use and transportation of hazardous substances, thereby protecting the environment and subsequently the worker,” says Matunga.
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Poor personal protective equipment, Hwange Gasification Company, Hwange coal mining firms , Zimbabwe Diamond and Allied Minerals Workers Union, Ministry of Mines and Mining Development, Hwange district
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