The Zambian government has emphasized that the take over is not nationalism, but due to non compliance with labour laws, safety and environmental standards and non payment of royalties at the previously state-owned coal mine.
There has been frequent industrial unrest at Collum Mine that has been under Chinese ownership since 2003. As early as 2005, submissions were made to government on poor working conditions and government considered its closure in 2006 after a delegation saw first hand the poor working conditions that workers had to endure.
In October 2010, 13 mineworkers were injured when two managers of the mine opened fire on striking workers. Workers went on strike when they were not paid and to protest poor pay and working conditions. Charges against the two managers were later dropped by the state.
Tensions continued to mount at the mine as labour issues remained unresolved. A pay dispute at the mine after government raised the minimum wage in 2012 resulted in a spontaneous protest by workers during which a Chinese supervisor was killed and another was injured.
“Since the mine was privatized, Muz has taken up the serious concerns of workers on the violation of labour laws, health and safety issues, even implementing the bargaining agreement has been a continuous dilemma,” says Joseph Chewe, General Secretary of the Mineworkers' Union of Zambia (Muz), an IndustriALL Global Union affiliated union. “Muz supports the seizure of the mine by government; this is in the best interest of workers especially since workers’ jobs are secure. But the government must ensure that the new investor follows the labour laws and ensures good working conditions at the mine for these long suffering workers.”
The government revoked mining licences held by the company that owns Collum mine after no improvements had been made at the mine. The state will operate the mine until a new investor is found. Government has assured workers that there would be no job losses.
A recent study by Human Rights Watch (HRW) concludes that whilst there have been some improvements in working conditions in Zambia’s mines under President Sata since 2011, much still needs to be done to ensure labour law enforcement and to improve safety standards, especially in the copper mines. Sata had promised to improve labour conditions in the mines during his election campaign.
A number of trade unions and civil society organizations in Zambia have welcomed the seizure of Collum mine, hoping that this action is a strong signal that the government will not tolerate investors that flout the law and abuse workers' rights.