Towards a neoliberal labor regime?

The introduction to our series, "Capital and Labor," that looks at the current state of the mining industry on the African continent.

Image credit Benjamin Rubbers.

The Central African Copperbelt has long been dominated by large companies, the Gécamines in Congo and the ZCCM in Zambia. Since the 1920s, these companies progressively developed a paternalistic labor regime that covered every aspect of their workers’ lives. Since the early 2000s, following the liberalization of the mining sector in both countries and the upsurge of copper prices, companies of different sizes and origins—including American majors, Chinese state-owned enterprises, Swiss commodity trading companies and junior companies from Canada, Australia and South Africa—have flocked to Central Africa to take over Gécamines and ZCCM assets and start new mining and industrial projects. Currently, there are about thirty mining projects found in operation in the region. Together, they produce more than two million tons of copper per year—a figure that will increase in the forthcoming years when new projects in the Congo will start production.

Building on the results of the WORKinMINING project, a research project funded by the European Research Council on the micropolitics of work in the mining companies of central Africa, this blogpost aims to share general thoughts about the changes that these new investors have brought to labor. Three general trends in their labor practices are worth noting here:

  • The new investors claim to break with the paternalism of the past, to focus on their core business—copper production. Those among them who bought mining and industrial assets from Gécamines or ZCCM did not take over their housing estates and social infrastructure. When social benefits are prescribed by law, they are generally converted into cash allowances or provided by subcontractors.
  • Mining companies in the 21st century outsource a much larger range of activities to subcontractors than the state-owned enterprises of the past. Far from being limited to secondary activities such as catering, transport, cleaning, or security services, this practice includes core operations of a mine, including mining or maintenance. Today, between 40 and 60% of the people working on mine sites in Congo and Zambia are contract workers, who tend to have lower wages and fewer benefits than direct workers.
  • Direct jobs in the mining sector are fewer and more precarious than in the past. Mining companies do not hesitate to organize mass lay-offs to respond to market pressures, most especially in Zambia, where production costs in the old underground mines are higher and the government more vulnerable to pressure on employment numbers.

Together, these trends point to the emergence of what we could call a “neoliberal” labor regime. Far from being specific to the Central African Copperbelt, this labor regime can be found to varying degrees in new mining projects all over the world. However, analyzing new investors’ labor practices as the manifestation of a broader neoliberal labor regime risks overlooking the diversity of mining projects characteristic of the recent boom. The comparison between various mining projects in the Central African Copperbelt suggests that, for each trend highlighted above, their labor practices show important variations depending of the type of capital involved (i.e. state vs. private), the area where they are established (i.e. rural vs. urban), and the type of mine being developed (i.e. underground vs. surface). Some investors have taken over existing social infrastructure, or built new company towns. Other companies provide relatively stable jobs to a predominantly permanent workforce.

In addition, an approach focusing on the neoliberal dimension of new mining investors’ labor practices excludes how they are negotiated by various categories of actors locally: HR managers, labor officials, trade unions, customary chiefs, etc. Developing a mining project does not fall within the perfectly controlled implementation of a rational plan: it is a complex process of improvisation and adaptation giving rise to various forms of mobilization, translation and resistance. Having said this, specific case studies developed in the WORKinMINING project indicate that the negotiation margin for the local actors mentioned above varies from one company to another, and tends to shrink with the development of mining projects.

The various categories of actors who contribute to shape mining companies’ labor practices also participate, in doing so, to the transformation of broader power configurations in Congo and Zambia. The WORKinMINING project focused on union politics, gender dynamics, the segmentation of the labor market, and the rise of identity politics. Generally speaking, the analysis suggests that, even though new mining projects have not fundamentally changed existing power configurations, they favored the emergence of new practices and discourses, increased social inequalities, and fueled union and political competition. This competition, however, does not develop along the same lines in Congo and Zambia. For various reasons, labor has been a more important political issue in Zambia than in the Congo.

Highlighting the diversity of mining projects and the complexity of the power games involved in the implementation of new labor practices does not necessarily prevent to see the labor regime currently emerging in Congo and Zambia as “neoliberal.” After all, the broader trends associated with this regime are present in both copperbelts, and they have considerably changed the rules of the game. Neoliberalism is best conceived as a Weberian ideal-type, a set of general characteristics which serve as an abstract starting point for comparing the micropolitics involved in the making of labor practices in different mining projects.

Further Reading