The micropolitics of work in the Central African Copperbelt

In this latest contribution to the Capitalism in Africa debate series, Benjamin Rubbers presents the main ideas of the recently published book Inside Mining Capitalism: The Micropolitics of Work on the Congolese and Zambian Copperbelts. Resulting from a collective research project, the book invites us to look at the mining projects that have been developed in the Central African Copperbelt in the period from 2000 to 2018 through the lens of work. Comparing the labour management practices put in place by new investors, it shows that they point to the emergence of a neoliberal labour regime that breaks in many ways from the paternalism of state-owned enterprises in the 20th century. The book chapters examine how these labour practices have been mediated, negotiated, or resisted by mineworkers, unionists, and human resources managers. This exploration into the micropolitics of work allows not only to highlight variations among mining projects, but also to understand the social dynamics they contribute to generate in new ways.

The mining sector in the Central African Copperbelt has undergone profound changes since the 1990s. In the second half of the 20th century, it was dominated by large state-owned enterprises – the Générale des Carrières et des Mines (Gécamines) in Congo and the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) in Zambia – that had put in place a paternalistic labour regime. They managed housing estates and social infrastructure allowing them to take charge of, and control, the lives of their workers and their families. In the 1990s and 2000s, following the decline of these enterprises, the World Bank pushed the two governments to dismantle them and to take measures to attract foreign investors. When copper prices soared after 2004, these neoliberal reforms met with direct success. The Central African Copperbelt witnessed an influx of foreign companies of all kinds: American majors, Chinese state-owned enterprises, Canadian, South African and Australian juniors, as well as businessmen from Belgium, India or Israel. Since then, some thirty mining projects of different sizes have entered the production phase. Today, they produce three million tons of copper annually, around three times more than Gécamines and ZCCM in the 1980s. Congo and Zambia are once again leading countries in world copper production. The Congolese copperbelt is also the world’s main producer of cobalt, a side-product of copper extraction that has gained new strategic import in the context of the energy transition (it is used in lithium batteries manufacturing).

The aim of our research was to identify the extent to which the labour management practices of new mining investors break with those of Gécamines and ZZCM in the past. Our hypothesis was that new mining projects should not be exclusively understood as the result of external forces, but as the outcome of a formation process involving various categories of actors both inside and outside corporations. This is especially the case since new mining projects have become very capital-intensive: Foreign companies invest colossal funds in a fixed place, which will be amortized only after several years or even decades. To make their investment secure and profitable, they therefore have no choice other than to cope with the pressures exerted by political leaders, the laws enforced by state officials, and the demands made by trade unions and the workers – a set of rules, norms and expectations that are, in the cases of Congo and Zambia, profoundly marked by the paternalistic model inherited from Gécamines and ZCCM. From this perspective, the recent boom in mining investments in Central Africa must be viewed not simply as a form of ‘dispossession’ by a new form of imperialism, but as a more complex ‘grafting’ process, through which mining capitalism becomes entangled in the historical trajectories of the two copperbelts in new ways.

The poster reads ‘Through the mine, progress’. 2021 © Benjamin Rubbers.

Understanding mining investments from this perspective implies taking a fresh look at the relationship between capital and labour in this sector. This relationship has been a classic area of research in the 20th century. The main focus of this body of research was the ability of mineworkers to create a world of their own in the mines, and the development of a militant working-class consciousness. For various reasons, however, this interest in class politics has faded into the background in the literature on new mining investments in the 21st century. Researchers’ attention has shifted to the relationships between foreign corporations and local populations, and the community politics they involve.

Although the book puts work centre stage again, it does not come back to an analysis in terms of class culture. Drawing inspiration from the anthropology of capitalism, its aim is to show the insights that can be gained from taking work as a lens to study the transformations of the mining industry in the 21st century. To do so, it foregrounds an approach from below, centred on the “micropolitics of work”. This approach seeks to understand how various actors (workers, trade unionists, customary chiefs) shape the development of mining projects, and how, in doing so, they participate in the transformation of various power configurations (the union field, gender dynamics, class inequalities). In this perspective, mining companies are not viewed as external monolithic institutions that enter into relationships with local communities. Mining projects are studied as being themselves co-produced by various actors both inside and outside mining companies. From the very first steps foreign investors take in the country, they are caught in various power configurations that influence how their extractive projects are developed.

To study the micropolitics of work in the mining, a team of six researchers including myself carried out ethnographic fieldwork in Congo and Zambia from 2016 to 2019: Francesca Pugliese and James Musonda undertook research with mine employees, Kristien Geenen and Thomas McNamara with trade unionists, and Emma Lochery and myself with human resource (HR) managers, labour officials, and political authorities at different levels. Since our research dealt with people in relation to each other, this teamwork method provided the opportunity to study the micropolitics of work in the mining sector extensively in each country, and to make consistent comparisons between different case studies in Congo and Zambia.

Written collectively, the book is the result of this teamwork method. Its aim is not to present all the findings of our research (most have appeared in journal articles) but to answer a set of questions that allow for comparisons between the two copperbelts. These questions are about safety politics, gender equality programme, union elections, strike dynamics, and the role of HR managers. Rather than writing separate individual chapters, as is usually the case in edited volumes, we co-authored chapters discussing similarities and differences between two cases – one in Congo, the other in Zambia – in a consistent way.

The book begins with a historical chapter highlighting the common trends in the labour management practices that new mining investors have put in place in the Central African Copperbelt since the early 2000s: they hire fewer workers, and grant them with fewer benefits in kin, 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. These trends point to the Gécamines and ZCCM in the 20th century. This analysis, and the neoliberalisation narrative underlying it, should not however lead us to neglect the diversity of mining projects characteristic of the recent boom. The comparison of new mining projects in both countries suggests that their labour practices show important variations depending on the type of capital involved (state vs. private), the type of mine being developed (underground vs. open pit), and the area where they are established (rural vs. urban).

It is also important to point out that the new labour regime is not simply imposed by foreign investors. Its rise is the result of a variegated process of improvisation and adaptation involving local actors. The subsequent chapters of the book bring to light the agency of mineworkers, trade unionists, and human resource managers in the making of mining companies’ labour practices. They play a significant role in recruitment practices, the negotiation of wages and benefits, the improvement of working conditions, compliance of companies with labour laws, and the organisation of mass layoffs. However, the case studies we carried out show that the margin for negotiation of local actors not only changes over time, with the development of mining projects, but also varies from one domain to another, and from one mining project to another.

Workers queue up at the entrance to a copper mine in DR Congo. 2021 © Benjamin Rubbers.

Such variations are well illustrated in the two chapters by Francesca Pugliese and James Musonda. In the chapter on safety, they show that new rules and procedures have been imposed by foreign investors in this domain without leaving much room for workers to change them formally. But the way in which workers put them into practice differs between the two mines under study, one being an opencast mine and the other an underground mine. In the underground mine in Zambia, contract workers have to circumvent safety rules and procedures informally if they want to meet their production targets and get a bonus at the end of the month, while in the opencast mine in Congo, where the production bonus is less significant or non-existent, workers have no interest – except for their personal convenience – in deviating from safety rules and procedures. In the chapter on gender, on the other hand, Pugliese and Musonda’s analysis suggests that gender equality initiatives by the parent company headquarters have had only a marginal effect locally. The main reason is that the people responsible for recruiting and promoting workers, who are generally Congolese or Zambian men, are still reluctant to hire women in the core departments of the mine – that is, mining, processing and maintenance. If the recent boom has represented a missed opportunity to introduce more gender equality in the mining sector, this is to a large extent due to the power games involved in the recruitment and promotion practices, the changes that have taken place in the contribution of women in household revenues, and the gender stereotypes prevailing in the two copperbelts.

If mining companies’ labour practices have had only limited impact on gender relations, the conclusion of the book shows that they have had far-reaching consequences in other areas of social life. In both Congo and Zambia, the mining boom was accompanied by the creation of new unions which began to compete with more established unions to represent the workers in companies, and this competition has led all the unions to develop new strategies to win elections and increase their budgets. Outside of the union power field, various actors in the political arena have seized on the issue of employment in the mining sector (job and contract opportunities, access to managerial positions, wages and working conditions, mass layoffs, etc.) to extend their support base and impose themselves as essential interlocutors between local people and foreign investors.

This growing political competition must itself be understood in the light of the inequalities that the establishment of new mining companies has helped engender and exacerbate in the two copperbelts. Contrary to what studies focusing on the dispossession of local communities by foreign corporations suggest, the recent boom of mining investments in the Central African Copperbelt has not resulted in a simple division between winners and losers. As in several other mining contexts in the Global South, the recruiting practices of foreign investors have resulted in what Gabrielle Hecht has called an ‘ethnotechnical hierarchy’, with expatriate executives and specialised technicians at the top, skilled employees from the country’s major cities in the middle, and the local unskilled workers at the bottom. At the same time, the development of subcontracting in the mining industry has led to the emergence of a class of small and midsized entrepreneurs and the formation of a large secondary labour market associated with precarious jobs and low wages. Finally, the consumption practices of these various categories of workers and entrepreneurs has had a significant effect on various sectors (construction, transport, food, schools, bars, etc.) with their own labour dynamics.

In a more general way, our research suggests that labour (access to jobs, income levels, career opportunities) remains at the heart of people’s concern. From a political perspective, this observation calls for the regulation of labour to be put back at the centre of mining governance concerns. If we want to get out of the neoliberal labour regime, it is necessary to move the debate beyond issues of state revenues and community development, to refocus it on labour and conditions of employment.

The book results from the WORKinMINING project at the University of Liège, Belgium. The project received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement n°646802).

Benjamin Rubbers is Professor at the Université de Liège and Lecturer at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. Since 1999, he has carried out ethnographic research on social change in the Congolese copperbelt with a focus on work, capitalism, and public reforms. His publications on the region include three monographs and thirty journal articles and book chapters.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.