||In April 2005, 49 workers were killed in an explosion at the BGRIMM explosives plant in the town of Chambishi, in Zambia’s Copperbelt. Days after the country’s worst industrial disaster for 30 years, the Chinese-owned company was unable to confirm the exact death toll, because most of those employed were casual workers whose names were not recorded by the company. There was widespread anger at the fact that casual workers, paid between US$15 and US$30 per month, could be employed in such a hazardous working environment.
Ministers of the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) Government criticised the company, and the Ministry of Mines froze the issue of any new mining licences. A national day of mourning was declared to mark the funerals of the deceased. At the funeral, family members of those killed expressed their anger not only at Chinese company executives, but also Government Ministers. Police beat back protestors attacking the Government’s failure to properly regulate companies that, over the last ten years, have been sold to foreign investors.1
BGRIMM was previously part of the vast copper mining state company, Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM). ZCCM, which was broken up and sold off in the late 1990s, had a relatively good safety record enforced by a powerful Mines Safety Department.
Whilst the Department still has the same legal powers to ensure safety in the mines and related workplaces, it is widely suspected that their new owners are able to evade such controls through the bribing of low-paid government inspectors. The suspension of mining licences reflects widespread suspicions that international mining companies acquired their assets through less than transparent eans, an issue explored by this paper.