WORKERS unions have flagged deteriorating labour standards at Chinese lithium mines.
Chinese investors own most of the best producing lithium mines in Zimbabwe.
These are Sinomine Resource Group Co Ltd which owns Bikita Minerals, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Company Ltd, the parent of Arcadia Mines, and Suzhou TA&A Ultra Clean Technology Co Ltd with an interest in Premier’s Zulu Lithium.
During a recent multi-stakeholder conference organised by the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), Zimbabwe Diamond and Allied Workers Union (ZDAMWU) secretary-general Justice Chinhema flagged the deteriorating working conditions at Chinese-owned mines.
He said there was a total disregard for health and safety standards during lithium extraction.
“Chinese investors do not respect the labour rights in the sector, we need to have routine visits at their mining sites given their history of labour violations. The jobs brought by these investments are not linked to any standards, but to self-created cheap and free labour and sometimes supported by our government,” he said.
“The current situation in the lithium sector is so sad, if not addressed urgently we are going to face another wave of colonisation, slavery and cheap and free labour. As labour and as a trade union, we advocate systems that balance the power between capital and labour through approaches that guarantee the improvement, promotion and protection of workers’ rights and interests characterised by economic equality, good governance and justice for all in society.”
He said about 5 000 employees were working at lithium mining companies in Zimbabwe under constrained labour conditions in a “wave of colonisation, cheap labour and violations of human rights”.
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Additionally, ZDAMWU alleges that Chinese-owned mining companies are offering employees short-term fixed contracts while terminating black indigenous company subcontracting in preference for Sino firms linked to parent mining companies for rudimentary services.
ZDAMWU found that the sidelining of locally-owned companies in the provision of basic services including stone crushing and compacting is a drawback on opportunities for local value addition and beneficiation.
“One thing about subcontracting is that the Chinese are bringing in fellow companies and they are terminating the contracts of black indigenous companies and awarding subcontracts to companies linked to the mother companies in China,” Chinhema said.
CNRG found unequal job opportunities in the mining sector, male dominance, and sexual exploitation, necessitating an interrogation into how the extraction of transitional minerals impacts labour practices.
CNRG deputy programmes director Tracy Mutowekuziva said labour challenges in the sector were not limited to formally employed workers but extended to child labour and exploitation of women in the lithium sector.
“There have been reports of forced labour, child labour, and exploitation of vulnerable populations, further exacerbating the suffering of these communities,” she said.
“Our role as a civic organisation is to engage with government institutions, policymakers and industry stakeholders to advocate policy reforms that promote transparency, accountability, and community participation in natural resource management.”
Government has in the past been notified of such practices by Chinese investors but has been accused of not responding to such concerns given that China is a big investment partner.
According to the Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency, China had US$2,79 billion worth of investment licences issued as of the third quarter of last year.