Chinese companies have been investing heavily across Zimbabwe’s economic sectors over the past five years resulting in a huge presence in the mining, construction, energy and agriculture sectors.
The Zimbabwe Investment Agency (ZIDA) in its 2022 annual report noted that China had become the southern African country’s biggest source of foreign direct investment as it accounted for 76.2 percent of the US$3 billion projects approved between 2019 and June 2022.
The plight of Zimbabwean mine workers, who are employed by Chinese companies, have however been of concern amid numerous reports of abuse, low wages, long working hours among other forms of ill-treatment.
“I feel less of a man now. I cannot fend for my family as a man because I can no longer stand for long or brave hard work due to this constant pain I feel in my back. As a man, I am no longer fit to fulfill my matrimony duties. Sex is painful and I can no longer find pleasure in it or satisfy my wife which affects me mentally and makes me feel less of a man,” says Onious Murada (pictured) who worked as a rig operator at a Chinese mine.
“Life has been very difficult for me since I got kicked on my private parts six months ago by my Chinese boss while I was attending my night duties at Ming Chang Sino Africa gold mining company at Empress Mine in Mashava where I was working as a rig assistant operator.”
A rig operator is responsible for operating equipment or machines used in the extraction of minerals.
“I was abused in form an assault at my work place by a Chinese supervisor (Chen Xianching) who is not even my boss but worked for the next shift which was supposed to relief us. He was not supposed to be there in the first place and I know it in my heart that what happened that night was intentional. He had plans to attack me. I say this because I was outspoken and challenge their abuse towards us.
“What transpired is that on November 19, 2022 I was on night shift with my other colleague. We take turns to man the machine and I had just finished my turn so I decided to take a quick nap while waiting for my turn. I heard some footsteps and when I opened my eyes, I identified him and he flashed a torch in my face and I was temporarily blinded. Before I could see what was coming, I was kicked hard on my private parts. I fell to the ground and everything went dark.
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“When I woke up, I found myself in a hospital bed with a drip inserted into my veins with nothing but pain in my pants. I was then told that I am admitted at Masvingo Provincial Hospital.
“I was not able to get any treatment, so I then got transferred to Makurira Hospital where I was inserted a catheter which I used up-to a month later after I got discharged out hospital,”
“I stayed up-to a week at Makurira Hospital and during that time, the company catered for the bills but after that there was nothing for my checks up, I had to source it myself. I was supposed to see a neurologist but because I could not afford it, I had to let it pass but and now I live with a condition where my back is in constant pain,” he said.
Murada says a police report was made and his boss paid a ZW$10 000 fine.
“When I inquired about him, I was told he was deported back to China, which I doubt very much because these people are well connected. He could have been transferred to another mine since they have many mines across the country. The company owes me three months’ salary which amounts to roughly USD1 000. l still have to see a neurologist, and I don’t know how much that will cost. They eventually dismissed me from work, l reported the matter to the NEC and a hearing was done but I am still waiting for the determination,” he said.
“There are a lot of people who are being abused by the Chinese and in many cases, it goes unnoticed because those people will be given bribe money, something like USD$100-500 in exchange of their well-being. It is absurd but because we are poor, we just end up taking the money. Most of the Chinese you call investors are nothing but bullies who are slowly taking away our inheritance. We cannot even compare them to white settlers because they are looting everything we ever own back to their country. I hope it will not be too late by the time our government realizes that.”
To indicate the continuous abuse and violation of labor rights, in a letter obtained by this publication, dated June 7, 2023 and addressed to Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Minister Paul Mavhima, the Zimbabwe Diamond and Allied Minerals Workers Union (ZDAMWU) said it was fed up with the physical abuse and harassment of its members by Chinese employers.
“Mine workers are kindly requesting for a national labour inspection across all mines in Zimbabwe big and small, particularly Chinese owned mines. Mine workers have reached a position that requires your intervention before the deteriorating working conditions and environment degenerate into chaos and labour unrest. Mine workers are very much frustrated and agitating for action if there is no immediate solution to all the stated issues,” reads the letter.
In October last year, China’s embassy in Harare clashed with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) after the country’s biggest labour organisation issued a scathing statement against Chinese companies that were allegedly abusing their workers.
ZCTU president Florence Taruvinga told this reporter the situation remains the same, while in some cases it has worsened.
Voluntary Service Organisation (VSO) national volunteer patience Makateko said many Zimbabweans were enduring abuse because of poverty.
“Many Zimbabweans working at Chinese mines are suffering in silence. Why? because we are talking about people who are trying to fight the poverty they are facing. These are people who are trying to feed their families and earn a living so they are forced to endure the insults, long working hours and the low wages because it is something at the end of the day,” she said.
“However, for many the risk outweighs the reward as this usually have caused tension in homes, where men came from work fatigued which usually ends in gender-based violence with many men taking out their frustrations on their families. VSO in partnership with Women and Law Southern Africa is meant to improve access to legal assistance for women and girls only but it is important for many to know their rights so that when faced with a situation close to that they know what to do or who to contact.”
According to Dr James Tsabora and Darlington Chidarara in their October 2021 research titled ‘Assessment of human rights risks in the extraction and production of natural stone in Zimbabwe’ employees suffer a wide range of abuse. This includes low wages long working hours of up to 27 hours per day, job insecurity where employees sign monthly contracts which make it easy for employers to hire and fire as well as child labor especially in Mutoko and Mt Darwin, where granite is extracted.
The Black Granite Workers Union indicated that there is high job insecurity in the sector with 80% of workers on short term contracts.
“The use of short-term contracts for an unlimited number of times is clearly illegal under Zimbabwe’s labour law. The relevant provision is section 12 (3) (a) of the Labour Act. In terms of this provision, a fixed contract can only be renewed two times. Any renewal or granting of a short-term contract for a third time means the contracted worker is now a permanent employee,” the report reads.
“Workers do not receive contracts when they are contracted for a month, they just sign in their details in a company register. Section 65 of the Zimbabwean Constitution recognizes and protects several rights of workers. These include the right to fair and safe labour practices; the right to a fair and reasonable wage, the right to form and join and participate a trade union; the right to participate in collective job action such as a sit in or a strike.
“Workers have a general idea about strikes, but several illegal measures by companies intimidate workers from doing so. For instance, workers are aware of their right to strike, but the one- month con- tract means that their contracts will not be renewed. Their lack of expert or professional qualifications makes their case even more difficult – they can be easily replaced.”
Director of Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) and human rights defender Farai Maguwu stressed that it is the government’s role to ensure that the working environment is safe for its people.
“Government sets the tone on how they want their people to be treated by employers. Laws must be tightened to ensure the workplace is safe for the mine worker. Also, government must address the currency risk. Most employers are taking advantage of the worthless RTGS which they use to pay salaries whilst shareholders, who don’t risk their lives going underground, are paid in USD. No mineral is sold in RTGS hence it’s ridiculous and slavery to pay workers in RTGS,” said Maguwu.