Zambia: Copper Boom, But Miners Say Earning Just Pennies

Zambia: Copper Boom, But Miners Say Earning Just Pennies

When copper prices hit record highs on international markets in 2005, Zambian miner Joseph Banda hoped for a rerun of the 1970s, when Zambia’s miners drove the economy and were handsomely rewarded with benefits and perks.

But the private investors that have since taken over from the state-owned Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) are less concerned about the welfare of miners and the neighbouring communities than the bottom line and staying in business.

Banda expected miners to be rewarded after months of poor and often delayed pay when copper soared to over US$8,000 per metric tonne in 2006, up from $1,200 five years ago. Instead he is left wondering why the new investors scrapped their benefits.

“These investors have … given us nothing but small allowances for working on weekends and holidays, while salaries have remained unchanged,” he said.

The free food has been withdrawn, the underground allowance has been cut by half and miners are compelled to work on public holidays. Before privatisation, miners would receive pay rises and bonuses of two months’ basic pay at the end of every year if copper prices increased.

When the loss-making ZCCM was broken up and sold off to foreign investors in 2000, copper prices were in the doldrums. Now copper is surging ahead on the back of strong demand from China and India and more mines are being opened – doubling output and substantially increasing the workforce.

According to Zambian mining minister Kalombo Mwansa, in 2005 the mining sector recorded growth of 14.8 percent, making it the second fastest growing industry after construction.

“We are not seeing the benefits of record copper prices because these mines are refusing to give us decent salaries while employing school leavers on [short-term] contracts and paying them peanuts,” said Rayford Mbulu president of the Mine Workers Union of Zambia.

MacDonald Shingalili, a short-term contract miner in Chililabombwe, a town on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, told IRIN he was not entitled to medical allowances or a pension package, and compensation in case of an accident was at management’s discretion.

According to Mbulu, full-time miners are paid around $230 per month, “and yet we have repeatedly said the lowest-paid miner should get $890 as a monthly salary”. A civil servant earns about $210 per month on average.

The privatisation of Zambian mines came with massive job losses, leaving most former miners in the mineral-rich Copperbelt region desperate.

Frederick Bantubonse, chairman of the Zambia Chamber of Mines, said the rate of investment by mining companies was encouraging in a region that had suffered when the price of copper stagnated throughout the 1990s. With communities suffering heavy unemployment, the new mining boom has brought welcome employment opportunities.

Mopani Copper Mines employs nearly 16,000 workers, Konkola Copper Mines (KCM) has a workforce of 14,000 and Luanshya Mine has over 2,000. “We expect to get even more people employed in our mines as mining activities intensify in all the copper-producing towns of this province,” Bantubonse said.

But Copperbelt residents not only expect employment from the mining companies, they also want them to invest in basic social services – ZCCM provided clinics and schools, and even funded a cup-winning soccer team.

Times have changed: bad roads, heaps of rubbish and unreliable water supplies are a common feature in towns across the region. “People should not expect mining companies to start building schools and hospitals like ZCCM [did] because we are private investors and our core business is mining,” said KCM corporate relations vice-president Augustine Seyuba.

Nevertheless, major mining houses like KCM, Mopani and Bwana Mkubwa Mine are sponsoring a number of social activities in communities, such as “the drilling of boreholes, antimalaria household sprays and providing artificial limbs to the disabled people,” said Copperbelt Minister George Mpombo.

The government said it appreciated the social investment efforts by the mining companies, but acknowledged there was room for improvement: “We cannot expect our new investors to match up to ZCCM, which was a parastatal company,” said mining minister Mwansa. “But we feel they can still do better than what they have been doing in the area of social investment, in line with our development agreements.”

Copyright © 2006 UN Integrated Regional Information Networks. All rights reserved.

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