When we hear about poor third world workers being exploited by a rapacious foreign corporation, we tend to assume the company is based in the United States, Europe or Japan. An article in the new issue of Bloomberg Markets magazine is the latest indication that we probably need to add China to that mental list.
Young Workers, Deadly Mines is a remarkable exposé by Simon Clark, Michael Smith and Franz Wild about child workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in central Africa. The DRC, formerly Zaire, is a mineral-rich country that suffered for more than a quarter-century under the kleptocratic Mobutu regime and then endured years of civil war that involved several neighboring countries. Some foreign companies enabled the violence by continuing to purchase gold and diamonds from militia groups.
Clark, Smith and Wild show that foreign business interests are once again profiting from the misery of the people of the DRC. The problem is concentrated in the Katanga region, which contains large deposits of copper and cobalt, two substance very much in demand on the international market. There, “freelance” miners, including young children, work crude, hand-dug mines to extract ore that is sold to middlemen, who in turn sell to nearby smelters run by Chinese companies such as Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Nickel Materials Co. (logo). The cobalt is shipped to China and is ultimately sold to companies such as Sony and Samsung for use in making cellphone batteries. The child workers, toiling in hazardous and unsanitary conditions, earn the equivalent of about $3 a day.
The article reports that more than 60 of Katanga’s 75 mineral processing plants are owned by Chinese companies and some 90 percent of the region’s mineral output is sent to China, whose fast-growing economy has an insatiable appetite for raw materials. The Bloomberg Markets article notes that Chinese extractive companies are operating in a number of other African countries aside from the DRC, such as Zambia, Niger, Sudan, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.
The latest Fortune Global 500 list contains 29 corporations based in China, including three with revenues in excess of $100 billion. We need to know a lot more about companies such as these and how they are behaving abroad as well as at home.