A poem inspired by Human Rights Watch

The Human Rights Watch report on Chinese-owned mines in Zambia and criticism of that report by Yan Hairong and Barry Sautman has given rise in an interesting debate on fora such as Pambazuka News and the Chinese-in-Africa-Africans-in-China mailing list. (Beyond factual contentions about the conditions of labour in Chinese-owned mines versus the mining sector in Zambia overall, Yan and Sautman dismiss the report as inherently racist because it singles out Chinese-owned mines.)

The debate inspired Paulette Nonfodji, a masters student at the University of Amsterdam who studies Chinese agricultural investments in Benin, to write the following poem:

                           THE TORMENTS OF A MINER


It’s been said that they come from the Orient and the Occident

To flock to the Centre

With their bags full of money

To invest in the mines of the Centre

For even more money for themselves

And a job for me with a boss all for me

 

It’s been said that this one is a better boss for me

It’s been said that, that one is a worst boss for me

But I say: what matters?

 

I still have to wake up every single day

With the fear in the pit of my stomach

Very well repressed in the depths of the unconscious

To trudge in the bowels of their mines

Hoping, yes, hoping to make it back

To the happiness of somebody’s daddy or mummy that I am

To the tenderness of a soul mate

To the delight of a friend

Or to the disappointment of an enemy

Yes, hoping to make it back

With a pittance of their bags full of money

So that they can make even more money

Out of their so called investments

But I say: what matters?

 

It’s been said that the casualties in some mines are lesser than in some others

But I say: what matters?

 

Every single miner’s life

Lost in the bowels of their mines is shaping a story

A  story of a lost miner

A story of a lost daddy or a lost mummy

A story of a lost well-beloved or a lost enemy

So to all this I say: what matters?

 

I, miner still have to carry my yoke every single damn day

Wondering what Tomorrow might bring

Hoping for a better Day

Dreaming of a brighter Future that escapes me perpetually

So after all tell me:

What matters whether they come from the Orient or the Occident?

                                                           Paulette Nonfodji

 

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4 Responses to A poem inspired by Human Rights Watch

  1. Barry Sautman says:

    Our critique of Human Rights Watch’s report on labor rights violations by the China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Co. (CNMC) does not “dismiss the report as inherently racist because it singles out Chinese-owned mines.” We are ourselves writing a book about the Chinese-owned copper mines in Zambia. We do consider however that it was entirely predictable that singling out the Chinese-owned mines for attack would foster anti-Chinese sentiment, in Zambia and the world, and media coverage of the HRW report has done just that.

    The HRW report’s author has informed us that it was issued because “we have faced constant questions from African human rights allies, policy makers, and media for our opinion from a human rights viewpoint on China’s growing investment in Africa.” The queries themselves smack of “racial profiling” and reflect China-in-Africa discourse bias. Racial profiling is a form of policing that links criminality and other malpractices with a specific race, ethnicity or national origin. A focus that includes Chinese-owned business in Africa does not in itself entail racial profiling or automatically reflect the China-in-Africa discourse. But these queries, like the HRW report, single out Chinese firms, by focusing on malpractices at such enterprises, while neither similarly investigating wrongdoing at non-Chinese-owned operations nor comprehensively evaluating how Chinese-owned firms may differ from other companies. Thus these queries posed the wrong question to begin with.

    By singling out companies based on nationality, HRW approached its Zambia study differently from how other NGOs have done firm-level studies of foreign copper mining companies there. NGOs that studied the UK/Indian-owned Konkola Copper Mine (KCM) did so “because of its sheer size.” Their report shows that development of Zambia copper mining has not benefited society at large, but has brought suffering and disadvantages. They did not focus on KCM because it is UK- or ethnic Indian-owned, nor did they critically distinguish KCM from other industry firms. A study of misbehavior by Mopani Copper Mine (MCM), while very specific, fundamentally questions “the link between development and mining in general” and it makes nothing of the fact that MCM is a Swiss citizen or that all its top officers are whites. The study points out moreover that MCM is “far from a stand-alone case.” HRW however constructed a binary of CNMC, as a Chinese SOE vs. the rest. Thus, despite its focus on one company, the report (p. 13) is self-described as “a useful magnifying lens into Chinese labor practices in Africa” and thus makes a Chinese SOE, by way of example, a strikingly negative example of investment in Africa.

    There have also not merely been “factual contentions about the conditions of labour in Chinese-owned mines versus the mining sector in Zambia overall” in the online debate between the HRW report author and ourselves. We have shown that in making comparisons between Chinese-owned and other foreign-owned copper mines in Zambia as to safety, wages and other matters, the report did not make the most basic adjustments for differences related to such explanatory factors as the proportion of CNMC firm fatalities, configurations of different mines, productivity, profitability, employment of non-permanent workers, etc. Had the report been, for example, a master’s thesis, such glaring methodological oversights would likely have caused it to be failed or at least rejected as in need of major revisions. Since it was not a thesis, but a widely-publicized public report, we contend that such inadequacies — which remain unacknowledged by the report’s author — are likely a function of HRW’s political agenda.

    Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong

  2. Thank you for the detailed comment. One can certainly argue that singling out companies by the nationality of their owners is, if not racist, discriminatory, particularly in a context that tends to criminalize that nationality. But by this token, writing about Chinese migrants or the Chinese state is similarly discriminatory, and one should write about nothing but global capitalism. That is a strategy that is analytically unsatisfactory, because global capitalism is not an agent of its own, and national contexts do matter.

    Having said this, one certainly has to consider the consequences of one’s actions when one releases a report on a politically charged topic. Here, I would make a distinction on the basis of the power positions of the individuals involved. When I did research on Chinese migrants in Hungary, in writings intended for a Hungarian audience I downplayed the extent of customs fraud they engaged in, because in the wider context of xenophobia, vilification and extortion they suffered I felt that the completeness of disclosure was less important than the protection of my informants. But a state enterprise is not a vulnerable migrant in need of protection. I feel no moral compulsion to protect a state or a corporation, even if it is unfairly attacked (of course, I may feel an intellectual urge to point out the unfairness).

    As for the contention about labour conditions in the online debate, both sides appeared to have serious arguments against the other side’s methods and data on the issues you mention, but I don’t think either has succeeded in showing the other was wrong overall. The HRW report certainly came out as standing on solid ground.

  3. […] A poem inspired by Human Rights Watch – MqVu 20/12/11 The debate  about the conditions of labour in Chinese-owned mines inspired Paulette Nonfodji, a masters student at the University of Amsterdam who studies Chinese agricultural investments in Benin, to write the following poem. […]

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