Skip to main content

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

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - WORKINMINING (Reinventing paternalism. The micropolitics of work in the mining companies of Central Africa)

Reporting period: 2020-06-01 to 2021-05-31

Objectives: The WORKinMINING project focused on the labour management practices of foreign companies that have developed new copper mining projects in the copperbelt in the period between 2000 and 2018. Its aim was to study how various categories of actors within and outside companies shape the implementation of mining companies’ labour management practices, and how, in doing so, they participate in the transformation of various power configurations in Congo and Zambia. By examining the power relations involved in the implementation of labour management practices by new mining companies, the broader ambition behind the project was is to identify to what extent these management practices break with twentieth century paternalism, and contribute to the emergence of a new labour regime.

Conclusions: The labour management practices that new mining investors have put in place in Zambia and Congo since the early 2000s show certain general trends that contrast with those of state-owned enterprises in the twentieth century: the new investors hire fewer workers, and grant them with fewer benefits in kind; they do not hesitate to carry out mass layoffs in response to copper price reductions or tax increases; and a growing number of their activities are outsourced. As a result of these trends, the mining workforce in both countries has become smaller, more fragmented and more precarious than in the past. Together, these trends point to the emergence of a neoliberal labour regime, which breaks in many ways with the paternalism of state-owned enterprises in the past.

From a societal perspective, our research draws attention on the precarious working conditions in which the copper ore that makes up cables and wires worldwide is produced in Central Africa. Our conclusions shows that Congolese and Zambian state authorities have the means to improve conditions of employment in foreign mining companies. To do so will require, however, that they pay more attention to this issue. Far from having become marginal, it remains in many respects at the heart of people’s concerns in the Central African Copperbelt.
Work performed: In the course of various fieldtrips in 2017, 2018, and 2019, the team members interviewed, or had in-depth informal conversations, with more than six hundred people involved in the mining industry, and carried out participant observation both inside and outside mining companies.

Results: The project has resulted so far in the publication of thirteen journal articles and two book chapters. The collective book which presents the main comparative results of the research will come out in 2022. Five other writing projects – three journal articles and two book chapter – are at different stages of the publication process. Besides these publications, the two doctoral theses carried out within the framework of the project are expected to be submitted before the end of 2021. In total, the project deliverables will include one edited volume, sixteen journal articles, four book chapters (independently of those in the edited volume), and two doctoral theses.

Dissemination: In the course of the project, team members organized (and participated to) a large number of events around the key themes of the project in Europe, Africa, and North America. These workshops and conferences gave them the opportunity to participate in different research networks, and to start publication projects in collaboration with other researchers. Among the publications mentioned above, three introduce such collective publications – namely, an edited volume and two special issues in scientific journals. Having said this, the events organized by team members were not just for researchers. In 2018 and 2019, they organized five workshops with various categories of research participants in Congo and Zambia. They also sought to reach a wider audience by giving public lectures, participating in radio broadcasts, and publishing blogposts on specialized websites.
The project makes an original contribution to the study of work in the mining industry, which has broader significance for research on foreign investments and the development of global capitalism. The relation between capital and labour is a longstanding area of research in mining studies since the 1950s. The main focus of this body of literature has been the ability of workers to create a world of their own in the mines, and the development of a militant working class consciousness. For various reasons, this interest in class politics has tended to fade into the background in the literature on the most recent mining boom, which was accompanied by the rise of more capital-intensive mining projects. In this context, researchers’ attention has been largely concentrated on the new type of relationships that mining companies develop with local communities in the Global South.

In undertaking an ethnography of labour management practices, of the internal workings of trade unions, and of the everyday life of workers, the project has sought to put work back at the centre of mining studies while distancing itself from a research agenda in terms of class-making. To study the changes caused by new mining projects in the Central Africa Copperbelt, the team has consistently developed an approach from below, centred on the ‘micropolitics of work’. Its aim was to understand how the development of mining projects is supported, constrained and shaped by human resource managers, trade unionists, workers, and various categories of state representatives. This approach has considerable implications for the study of mining projects. From this perspective, mining companies are not viewed as external monolithic institutions that enter into relationships with local communities while developing new extractive projects, an implicit view in most of the literature. Instead, extractive projects are studied as being themselves co-produced by various actors both inside and outside mining companies, from the very first steps that foreign investors take in the country.

Finally, the project aimed to shed comparative light on the micropolitics of work among the companies that have developed new mining projects in the Central African Copperbelt in the last twenty years. Far from exclusively pointing to national differences, the factors involved in the micropolitics of work also include determinants associated with geology, infrastructural geography, or power struggles at play at other levels such as those between financial markets and mining companies. To compare mining projects from below through a focus on the micropolitics of work makes it possible to take into account the diversity of mining projects and, in doing so, to develop a more complex understanding of the labour regime that is emerging in the global mining industry.