‘Bogus companies’ in the DR Congo

Can safety policies in the transnational mining sector in DR Congo break with the past?

Image credit Francesca Pugliese.

When we are at the mining site, there are people saying that it is as if the company is trying to chase people. How are we going to follow all this? Do not do this; do not do that. Do not drink, do not drive quickly, put on the seatbelt, you must wear the PPE (personal protective equipment), and if you do not wear it, you lose the job. So we have to follow everything because it is good for us: men do not have a spare part. We must take safety as a culture.

Victoire shared these thoughts while reflecting on her job at a large transnational mining company in the Haut Katanga province. Rather than complaining, she was explaining her everyday working experience, figuring out the reasons behind the legions of procedures and rules in the workplace and the related grievances from her colleagues.

In the last two decades, most of the companies worldwide have aligned their core values in the name of a more rational, responsible and productive organization of work. The focus on safety standards is increasingly present on the agenda, annual reports and in the general representation of the new companies. Each year, large transnational mining companies have to present the updated data on fatalities and accidents and make all the figures and rates are available to the general public. Being transparent and committing to international ethical principles can help to avoid scandals. In DR Congo, this reality has taken place after the liberalization of the mining sector and the arrival of new transnational mining companies. Nowadays, the safety policies implemented in the new mining companies are recurrent subjects of discussion among the employees. The keyword of safety is central when it comes to evaluating the new companies’ social behavior and their care of personnel.

The idea of a company that takes care of all the employees and their families, providing them with a “cradle to grave” welfare system is part of the moral economy of the mineworkers of the Haut Katanga province (see here and here). The legacy of the industrial paternalistic system that marked the Gécamines, the Congolese State-owned mining company, is still strongly present in the workforce’s imagination. For many, it remains the benchmark to compare the work of the new transnational mining companies. When thinking about the past, especially the former mining workers complain about the lack of involvement of the new enterprises in the employees’ life. According to Felix, a mining worker:

[The new companies] came to Congo just for their own, private business and not to develop a country, as the Gécamines did. Look at the houses, the road. Those were real companies, not like these new ones that construct just temporary buildings and then leave. These are bogus companies.

In order to avoid sabotages and protests, new companies have to deal with this historical legacy and tailor their corporate responsibility accordingly. Safety procedures can reflect the degree to which an employer takes care of their employees. Even if it can be annoying to follow and remember even the pettiest rules, many workers are grateful whenever companies are strict and rigid about their personal safety. This situation is quite unusual for many mining societies and especially among subcontracting companies where the safety rules are generally more flexible and less enforced, leading to a higher number of workplace accidents.

Large transnational mining companies aim to make people accept and internalize the new rules and the corporate values via the safety training, which become essential for all the staff not just in terms of improving the safety standards but also as the privileged place for the socialization of the corporate culture. At the Gécamines, instead, safety training was just one means through which the company shaped the workers’ identity. The socialization of the working class took place mostly in the camps where workers lived. Nowadays, the new mining companies cannot rely on such a powerful system like the Gécamines’ industrial paternalism for being respected by the workers and maintaining high productivity. That is why caring about one of the aspects of workers’ lives, such as safety can be a fitting substitute. It is around safety that entire companies create their own identities, and safety is the new benchmark for comparing and ranking the new companies by the employees.

By experiencing the new safety procedures, employees become nostalgic about the Gécamines’ welfare system, when the workers and their families did not have to worry about the future. Indeed, most employees express their disapproval of the lack of a long-term project in the objectives of the new companies and the consequent job insecurity. Many do not believe in the image of a benevolent business promoted by the transnational mining company, and miss the idea of a “father-mother” company that cares about the different aspects of the employees’ life. It is in this framework of criticism towards neoliberalism and the withdrawal of the welfare policies that the myriad of new companies’ safety procedures can function: even if experienced as a hindrance, they can be perceived as a way of showing the employees that the companies care about them, at least during working hours.

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