Two Hong Kong social scientists claim a Human Rights Watch report had a political agenda in accusing Chinese-owned mining of having the worst safety records in Zambia.
The independent global organisation labelled the Chinese mines 'bad employers' in terms of meagre pay, marathon working hours, poor safety records and lack of union rights. The China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining Co was singled out for particular criticism.
However, Barry Sautman, a professor from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Yan Hairong, an anthropologist from Polytechnic University, found that multinational mining firms placed workers in just as deplorable conditions. They say in a counter-report that the claims by Human Rights Watch, which were widely reported in November, served to fuel the racist Western stereotype of Chinese people as abusive employers.
They wrote: 'There should be improvements across the board for mine workers in Zambia, who still receive a subsistence wage and live in underserviced communities, a possibility made less, rather than more likely when Chinese firms are singled out and erroneously accused of being the worst.'
They argue that there were multinational firms that should have been assessed, such as the British and Indian-owned Konkola Copper Mine and the Swiss and Canadian-owned Mopani Copper Mine, which is partly controlled by commodities giant Glencore, itself having had a long history of controversy over the safety and environmental impact of its mining operations.
The two academics will be presenting their paper at a seminar detailing the methodological errors of the Human Rights Watch report on March 9 at HKUST. The Hong Kong office of the New York-based rights group has been invited to the debate but has yet to decide whether to attend.
The rights group said Zambian miners were threatened with losing their jobs unless they risked their lives by tolerating unsafe conditions, long working hours and low wages - compared to more humane working conditions under multinational firms.
The local academics say that Chinese firms may appear to be more dangerous because they have more deep underground operations where there is lower copper content, therefore it is more labour intensive with lower productivity.
They argue that the clearest way to see if a firm has been paying attention to miners' safety is to look at the fatality rate. Out of 217 mining-related fatalities in Zambia between 2001 and August last year, Chinese firms were responsible for 25 only.
Sautman and Yan also point out that Zambia did not even rank in the top 60 most dangerous countries for miners. They add that Chinese-owned firms have invested a lot of money in opening up mining opportunities in challenging locations at a time when many miners were being laid off.
In response, Human Rights Watch said: 'The organisation has consistently reported on abuses by Western companies and governments with the same vigour.' It added that it was evident from interviews that unlike safety officers at multinational firms, those at Chinese-owned mines would not halt mining activities when safety fears were raised.