Govt shuts down Bikita Minerals over abuses

Govt shuts down Bikita Minerals over abuses

Moses Ziyambi

Bikita Minerals on May 15 stopped operations following a government directive that the company close over a litany of offences including labour malpractices, employment of illegal Chinese immigrants and poor administrative procedures leading to smuggling.

The temporary closure comes hard on the heels of an investigative story that exposed labour and human rights abuses at the company.

In a letter to Bikita Minerals managing director Wang Zhenhua, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage, Gerald Gwinji stated that operations must remain shut until all issues are addressed.

“A meeting was held on the 10th of May 2023 in the 11th floor boardroom Mukwati Building between Bikita Minerals/Sino Minerals management and a committee of ministers of government chaired by the minister of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage, Hon Kazembe Kazembe, set up for the purpose of looking into areas of concern at your mine,” reads part of the letter which was copied to several ministers and senior government officials..

“The areas of concern are as follows: migration/immigration status of foreign employees, labour administration, mines and mining administration and safety issues, social security contribution and medical surveillance for pneumoconiosis.

“After in-depth discussions which were captured in the minutes, it was agreed that we proceed by way of suspension of operations at Bikita Minerals for a period until the critical issues raised were resolved.”

Sources said Bikita Minerals employed over 100 Chinese illegal immigrants, who often run and hide in the bush when inspections by the Department of Immigration are done.

In a press statement released later in the day, mine manager David Mwanza said operations would resume after seven days.

“The company’s leadership is working closely with all relevant authorities to ensure that the matter is resolved within the stipulated timeframe,” Mwanza said.

“During the 7-day period, all employees are to stay at their homes and residences except for those in care and maintenance. Those on essential services will be required to perform their prescribed duties.”

The meeting at Mukwati Building came five days after police discovered a large haul of lithium ore at two sites in the industrial area of Masvingo.

Police said the ore weighed 3 500 tonnes, and they suspected that most of it was taken from Bikita Minerals to be smuggled out of the country.

Zimbabwean law prohibits the exportation of raw lithium unless a miner is exempted.

In April this year, EnviroPress and The Standard, in collaboration with Information for Development Trust, published an investigative story focusing on gross labour and human rights abuses at the mine.

After the investigative story was published, Bikita Minerals hastily organised a media tour of the company.

The media tour was conducted on Tuesday, April 25, 2023, two days after the story was published.

Bikita Minerals later hosted the national leadership of the Zimbabwe Diamonds and Allied Mining Workers Union (ZDAMWU) at its Lithium Stadium for the Workers’ Day celebrations, apparently as part of further efforts to improve its image in the wake of damning reports around its operations.

The company has now also employed a permanent public relations officer, Collen Nikisi, who was formally introduced to the company at a management meeting held at the beginning of May.

Nikisi was instrumental in organising the media tour during which Bikita Minerals mine manager Mwanza sought to absolve his employer and apportion all blame for the cases of abusive labour practices on the many companies contracted to provide various services to the mine.

“Those cases are coming from the contractors that we have, and we are looking at those cases.

“It’s our responsibility to monitor them and make sure that they carry out their operations in an acceptable manner because it’s us who hired them and gave them work,” said Mwanza.

The story had focused on the many cases of labour abuse including poor salaries, unpaid overtime, difficulties getting off days, and unfairness in the administration of the contentious target bonus.

Of the contracted companies, PEI, which operates earth-moving equipment, and Madlux, which employs hundreds of casual labourers, were identified in the investigative story as the most abusive.

Mwanza also claimed that the newly-built clustered hostels, which employees complain do not make for decent family accommodation, were only meant for temporary use as the company planned to build more acceptable houses.

To demonstrate its corporate social responsibility practices, Bikita Minerals then took journalists to the solar-powered Shumbaimwe Clinic which was built by Bikita Rural District Council with support from the company.

However, work on the clinic, which was opened by Health and Childcare deputy minister John Mangwiro, in 2022, began before the Chinese company Sinomine took over the lithium mine from its majority German shareholders in January of the same year.

When contacted for comment after attending the Workers Day celebrations at Lithium Stadium, ZDAMWU general secretary Justice Chinhema said he now saw a ray of light in the labour movement’s relations with Bikita Minerals.

“I think they are not incorrigible,” he said.

“There is nothing about them which we can say is beyond dialogue and their acceptance to host us for the Workers Day is a good start.

“We have got to engage more and try to reach a shared understanding,” he said.

However, Chinhema, who had previously stated that the abuses at Bikita Minerals were symptomatic of exploitative practices at all Chinese mining investments in the country, said he had made it clear to the mine management that he wanted the target bonus to be administered transparently and fairly.

Luckson Madhende, who disputes claims that he is one of the Madlux directors and claims he too is a victim of Bikita Minerals abuses, said the company was now paying him a ‘measly’ US$300 per month.

“This is what they do for me after I served them for 20 years.

“They say they have put me on salary yet there is no paperwork including payslips. Last month, they sent a person to give me the money and it did not appear formal,” complained Madhende.

He said since he fell ill last year and began staying at home, he had no idea of the fate of the hundreds of casual labourers who worked under Madlux picking lithium ore in the mining areas.

When contacted for comment on what his company had done to remedy the situation, PEI director Timothy Holden was hazy in his response.

“All under internal management and being implemented,” Holden said in a brief response to questions sent to him. He ignored follow-up questions.

Sources said PEI is notorious for paying salaries late, failure to provide payslips, forcing employees to work without sufficient protective wear, and for its refusal to register employees with pensions authority NSSA.

The company’s employees live in crowded wooden cabins that do not have ventilation and ablution facilities.