Skip to main content

Reinventing paternalism. The micropolitics of work in the mining companies of Central Africa

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - WORKINMINING (Reinventing paternalism. The micropolitics of work in the mining companies of Central Africa)

Reporting period: 2018-12-01 to 2020-05-31

Since the mid-2000s, African countries have witnessed an unprecedented boom in mining investment, which many commentators have compared to a “new scramble for Africa”. The copperbelt crossing the border between Zambia and Congo is one of the most striking cases of this “second great transformation” of the African mining sector. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, under pressure from international financial institutions, the Zambian and Congolese governments were forced to divide up the assets of their public mining companies and sell them to private investors at a very low price. As a result of the sharp rise in the copper price on the world market in the second half of the 2000s, these neoliberal reforms met with direct success: copper-rich provinces in Zambia and Congo witnessed an influx of companies of all kinds searching for new investment opportunities, from Canadian exploration companies to American multinationals and Chinese public enterprises, together with a variety of smaller outfits. These companies caused a huge increase in mining investment not only in the traditional mining areas, but also in new areas such as the Lualaba district in Congo, and the Northwestern Province in Zambia. Since the beginning of the mining boom, around twenty mining projects have moved into production on both sides of the border.

The research project WORKINMINING examines the working conditions in which the copper ore that makes up cables and wires worldwide is produced in Zambia and in the Democratic Republic of Congo – what Marx called “the hidden abode of production”. The mining companies that have established themselves in Central Africa have imported new technologies, new management practices, and new corporate culture discourses. However, while companies arrive with strategies for the organization of work designed elsewhere, implementation of a work regime in a mine occurs in interaction with contextual norms, rules and practices. Accordingly, our aim is to examine how the labour policies of new mining investors are negotiated locally. To answer this question, the project focuses on the role of a range of actors, including human resource (HR) managers and employees, state representatives, trade unions, and the workers themselves.

For a century, the economy of the mining areas of Zambia and Congo has depended almost entirely on the copper industry. The century-old inclusion of the mining industry in the social fabric of both copperbelts requires that particular attention be paid to the historicity of practices and discourses relating to work within the mining sector. A particularly fruitful entry point for questioning these continuities is the concept of corporate paternalism. From the 1930s onwards, mining corporations in Zambia and Congo laid the foundations for a type of labour policy that historians call “industrial paternalism”. This policy, which contributed to making these workers part of a relatively privileged social category, continued into the 1980s, when the Zambian Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) in Zambia, and the Générale des Carrières et des Mines (GCM) began to decline.

The WORKINMINING project builds on the hypothesis that the management practices of new mining companies do not so much break with this tradition of industrial paternalism, as give it new directions. To develop this hypothesis, the project poses two main questions. First, we ask how far the moral economy associated with industrial paternalism continues to influence workers’ expectations towards mining companies as well as state labour policies in the mining sector. Secondly, we ask how mining companies have adapted their managerial models to the legal, social, and political constraints they have been faced with in Zambia and Congo. From a broader perspective, following the decline of ZCCM and GCM and the subsequent establishment of the new mining companies, the project follows how the concept of paternalism has increasingly become a subject of reflection and debate. The project studies conflicting discourses regarding “paternalism”, their relationship with people’s lived experience, and the strategic uses of these discourses in context.

The research project is made up of three subprojects, each involving a researcher in Congo and another in Zambia:
1. The first subproject deals with the multiple dimensions of the work experience in mining companies. Two Ph.D. students—Francesca Pugliese and James Musonda—study the everyday life of various categories of mine employees at work, in the family, and during leisure activities. Their aim is to understand their interaction with management practices and discourses within these companies and, more generally, to analyse the social and cultural changes generated or exacerbated by the recent mining boom.

2. The second subproject studies dynamics of trade unionism in Zambia and Congo during the mining boom. Two postdoctoral researchers—Kristien Geenen and Thomas McNamara—carry out ethnographic research with trade unions to better understand how they interact with new mining companies and their employees. Their objective is to determine unions’ role in the emergence of new labour regimes in the mining sector.

3. The third subproject examines how political leaders and state representatives intervene in the organization of mining companies, and how HR managers negotiate the pressures to which they are subjected. One postdoctoral researcher, Emma Lochery, and the PI Benjamin Rubbers interview all those involved in the regulation of employment and labour to understand how labour policies are elaborated in relation to economic and political transformations.

As demonstrated by the division of the research into three different subprojects, each involving one researcher in each of the two countries, WORKINMINING is a comparative research project. It will compare not only the micropolitics of work in different mining companies, but also the various dimensions of the labour question in Zambia and Congo.
The WORKINMINING project is an ethnographic investigation involving long-term research in Central Africa. After a year devoted to the launching of the project and the preparation of the research, in 2017 and early 2018 the PI and team members carried out extended fieldwork in Zambia and Congo. In the course of the research, they interviewed or had in-depth informal conversations with more than 600 people involved in the mining industry, principally workers, managers, subcontractors, union representatives, labour inspectors, and political authorities at different levels. In addition to these interviews, they carried out participant observation both inside and outside mining companies. A Ph.D. student spent six months working in an underground mine. The PI and the other Ph.D. student obtained authorization to do a one-month internship in the HR department of 3 different mining companies. A postdoctoral researcher was granted a desk at the head office of the main mining union in Zambia, which allowed him to follow trade union representatives in their everyday activities for several months. The two other postdoctoral researchers had the opportunity to follow a strike in a Chinese company, or to attend professional training sessions for HR managers. To varying extents, all team members also participated in the social life of research participants at home, in bars, churches, etc. Finally, the team did research in the archives and collected various types of documents from mining companies, labour courts, and state administrations.

In accordance with the project’s work programme, the team is now towards the end of the data collection phase and is beginning to write up and submit publications. Currently three papers (two journal articles and one book chapter) have been submitted for publication, and four other journal articles are in preparation. It is expected that one edited volume and twelve articles will be submitted for publication before the end of September 2019. The main results of the project so far are the project website, workshops, conferences panels and papers, and various dissemination activities.
Most studies on the mining boom in Africa deal with the role of the World Bank, the mining strategy of China or Canada in Africa, the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda of multinationals, or the social conflicts between mining companies and local communities. Few have focused on the issue of work within the mining industry. Moreover, these studies tend to overestimate the effects of the policies under consideration, and to neglect the complexity and diversity of the dynamics caused by mining investment in African countries. WORKINMINING is designed to provide a more detailed analysis of the micropolitics of work in different mining companies and countries. In undertaking an ethnography of the processes of labour regulation, the internal workings of trade unions, and the everyday life of workers, the project will make a unique contribution to the study of work in the mining sector, putting the agency of African workers, managers, trade unionists and political leaders at its centre.

From a historical perspective, a particularly fruitful entry point for comparing the changes that new mining investors have brought in the domain of labour in both countries is the issue of corporate paternalism. Corporate paternalism is rarely the focus of investigation and reflection in African studies. Most studies dealing with paternalism reduce it to an exploitative management practice and focus on the colonial period. By contrast, WORKINMINING takes corporate paternalism as a starting point for studying the contemporary transformations of wage labour. Its purpose is not to demonstrate that paternalism is back in central Africa, but to identify how mining companies reinvent, or re-imagine, the tradition of industrial paternalism once distinctive of Northern Zambia and Southern Congo. To this end, it draws on the work of historians who attempt to understand how paternalism is imposed and reproduced without reducing it to a disciplinary regime imposed by employers on their workforce. From this perspective, the implementation of a paternalistic policy is less the result of a deliberate strategy, than of a situational adaptation to various constraints. Above all, the policy creates asymmetrical but still mutual obligations between employers and employees, which entitle employees to claim social benefits or personal advantages from the company. To a certain extent, paternalism is co-produced within the wage relationship.

Finally, the WORKINMING proposes to compare changes in Congo and Zambia. The mining companies involved are similar (in some cases, the same), and they are facing analogous constraints (geographic isolation, the copper price, etc.). This similarity in the macro processes taking place on each side of the border justifies a comparative research study focused on the micropolitics of work. Given their dependence on the world copper price, the economic and social histories of both industrial regions show interesting parallels and interconnection, which, however, remain understudied. Most research is confined within national borders, and while the literature on the labour question in Zambia is extensive, it remains sparse in Congo. In developing a comparative approach, WORKINMINING will contribute to developing dialogues between different research traditions and cast new light on the points of convergence and divergence in the history of workers and trade unions in Zambia and Congo.

The main results of the WORKINMINING research project will be one edited volume, a dozen journal articles, and two doctoral theses. Other potential results include the writing of another edited volume or journal special issue. In addition, the team will organize an international conference in Liège; workshops in Zambia and Congo; and panel sessions in various conferences.