By Mary Taruvinga
TWO employees have died in a short space of time due to unsafe working conditions at Arcadia Mine, a Chinese-run multi-million open-pit lithium mining company based in Goromonzi, 38km east of Harare, the capital, NewZimbabwe.com has established.
The shocking incidents were unearthed during a three-month investigation by NewZimbabwe.com, which worked in partnership with Information for Development Trust (IDT), a non-profit media outfit supporting in-depth reporting in a project focusing on foreign investments.
Arcadia holds one of the biggest hard-rock lithium reserves in the world and is run by Prospect Resources through Prospect Lithium Zimbabwe (PLZ), it’s subsidiary.
Prospect Resources operates under the China-listed Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Co Ltd conglomerate that is engaged in research relating to, the development and manufacture of lithium battery materials.
It is also a global supplier of cobalt and is headquartered in the Tongxiang Economic Development Zone of Zhejiang in China.
According to its website, Huayou Cobalt has a revenue base of more than US$48 billion and a market value worth more than US$100 billion, ranking among the top 500 enterprises in China.
Prospect Lithium says it employed an estimated 1000 people during the construction stage and is set to employ hundreds more when production goes full-scale.
The Chinese multi-national concern is mother to another subsidiary that has been accused of dealing in “conflict cobalt” in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The subsidiary, Congo DongFang International Mining, was busted by a 2016 joint Amnesty International and African Resources Watch report, “This is What We Die For”, for illegal child artisanal labour hire and unsafe operating practices.
One of the victims of the freak accidents at Arcadia Mine is Simbarashe Madera (26), who worked as a rig operator and was crushed to death on May 31 this year.
He left behind a three-month-pregnant wife and two children.
The death caused a standoff between the mine’s management and Madera’s family, the local traditional leadership and the area chief, Chikwaka.
The latter were insisting that the company compensates the Maderas and facilitate a cleansing ceremony to appease the dead in accordance with local traditional beliefs.
Blood on the ground
During one of numerous visits to the mine, this publication observed that the victim’s brain matter was splattered on strewn pieces of the wooden cabin where Madera had been sleeping when a giant dump truck crashed him in the middle of the night.
There was blood on the ground too.
The truck is owned by Zhongjingfu Ltd, which has been contracted by PLZ as an earth mover, it was established.
The chief, according to the relatives, also demanded that the brain matter and blood be removed from the scene of the accident according to traditional rites.
The truck reportedly had defective hand brakes moved from where it was parked and rammed into nearby cabins housing workers.
Two other employees whose names could not be immediately established were seriously injured and hospitalised.
Madera’s sister, Kudzai, said the company had offered burial assistance but said no long-term plans for his young family had been made.
Head blown open
Another worker, Stanley Jacob Haruzivi—born in 1987—died on 8 February while fixing a faulty dump truck wheel.
He was working for another contracted company, Richmark.
Investigations established that Haruzivi was operating in a poorly equipped workshop when the tyre burst and the ring flew off, blowing his head open.
Eyewitnesses who spoke anonymously said there were no safety cages and the pressure gauge was defective and the victim was working without protective clothing.
Police in Goromonzi confirmed both accidents adding they were still investigating the two deaths.
Zimbabwe Republic Police deputy spokesperson for Mashonaland East province, Assistant Inspector Misheck Denhere revealed that the victim was from Maanga Village under Chief Mangwende in Murewa, Mashonaland East province, where he was buried.
“Circumstances are that he was pumping pressure into an uncaged dump truck tyre when it burst. The ring then hit his forehead.
“It happened after 12 midnight on 8 February 2023 and he died later the same day around 13:30 pm. He was buried in Murewa,” Denhere told NewZimbabwe.com.
The PLZ spokesperson, Rugare Dobbie, confirmed Haruzivi’s death dismissing it as water under the bridge.
“You are still on that case of a person who died long back? What’s there to write about now?” she asked.
Mashonaland East police spokesperson, Simon Chazovachiyi, said the dump truck that killed Madera had apparently moved on its own from where it was parked.
“It was not a mine accident. It was an incident in which a truck moved on its own and crushed the cabin he (Madera) was sleeping in,” police said.
Zhongjingfu Ltd, the owners of the truck that killed Madera, promised to put in place, measures that would ensure there was no repeat of such a tragic incident.
“Investigations on this accident are still ongoing and we are cooperating with all respective regulatory authorities to ensure necessary measures are put in place to avoid fatalities of this nature within our premises,” the company said in a statement.
Worker discontent has been simmering for a long time at Arcadia Mine. This investigation has also uncovered raging anger in nearby villages where crop fields, pastures and the environment have been badly scarred by the Chinese mining company that has taken over large swathes of land and is leaving deep gullies and open pits in their wake, posing a danger to livestock and the villagers.
But the company shares the blame with others, who include illegal miners who sell their modest produce to politicians and shadowy companies.
A well-known businessman, Tawanda Nyambirai who is also mining lithium in the Arcadia environs is accused of digging up ore and leaving open pits and gullies.
The area’s legislator, Ozias Bvute, is also accused of using the ruling party name to shield the Chinese miner and others from environment-related prosecution by authorities.
Bvute declined to respond to questions relating to the involvement of politicians in the Goromonzi lithium saga and the reported abuse of workers at Prospect Mine.
He referred questions to the mine authorities despite concerns having been raised by the communities in his constituency.
A local EMA official confirmed that they had fined Nyambirai’s company, TN Gold Arcturus Mine, for operating without an environmental impact assessment certificate.
Astas Mabwe said: “Indeed, the mine was fined ZW$500 000. We went to the site and found out that he was operating without (an) Environmental Impact Assessment certificate.”
Mabwe, though, insisted that Arcadia Mine was complying with the law.
Labour rights violations
Villagers that have worked at the mine say management terminates contracts without notice while wages are extremely low and not properly recorded.
Unionism is not allowed at the company and participation or mere membership attracts instant dismissal.
A workers’ committee was formed at the mine last year and several members of this committee were fired earlier this year, workers said.
Workers work overdue without any compensation.
Some earn US$300 with half of the amount paid in local currency at interbank rate against labour laws.
They also complained that until recently, their payslips had no company name and was just a “strip” of paper.
The company’s public relations manager, Dobbie said in an interview with this publication that focus must be placed more on the growth that the company has recorded since operations started.
She hailed the world-class lithium processing plant that the company built in a record 10 months and brushed aside the reported environmental damage and poor working conditions.
The hope that came with the mega-million investment has fast turned into despair, said one of the employees.
“Given the billions of dollars that Goromonzi is now associated with, one would have expected that the district and local communities around the mine would have started evolving into a new, prosperous economy in their own right,” said the worker.
Around 2017, there was a sudden surge of foreigners in the area, mainly of Australian extraction.
They were to be followed three years later by a larger contingent of Chinese miners who arrived showing clear resolve to stay.
The first group of foreigners brought with it sophisticated equipment and quietly went about carrying out measurements on the land and drilling wells.
The foreigners were employees of an Australian company, Prospect Resources, which was exploring for lithium.
While Zimbabwean law stipulates that locals must be consulted before exploration can take place, the villagers were kept in the dark.
After months of exploration, word spread around that the ‘strangers’ had made a lithium discovery lithium and a huge mine would soon be opened in the area.
Later, in 2021, Prospect Resources sold the lithium fields known as Arcadia to Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Co Ltd for US$378 million and the Chinese conglomerate immediately formed a company which they called Prospect Lithium Zimbabwe (PLZ).
The Arcadia project is made up of six claims, which cover an area extending over 14km².
In August last year, PLZ invested US$275 million to set up a lithium processing facility, completing the project this year in March.
The miner has already started exporting semi-processed lithium concentrate, mainly to China.
The deputy general manager of the mine, Trevor Barnard said in a recent interview: “The throughput of this mine will be around 4,5 million tonnes of lithium ore per year. It’s a massive operation and we’re going to produce around half a million tonnes of lithium concentrate per annum.”
This glitzy projection sharply contrasts with the feelings of the workers and locals who already see the project as a curse.
Workers complained that PLZ did not do due diligence before engaging the contracted extraction company, Richmark, which is failing to provide decent ablution facilities for its workers.
Section 97 of the Environmental Management Act stipulates that project implementers must ensure that there are acceptable health and sanitation facilities in place before commencing operations.
The mine opened without modern toilets and the employees had to resort to makeshift pole-and-plastic structures that fill up quickly.
A stone’s throw away from the workers’ wooden cabins lies a bushy area called ‘kwaNero’, which has been turned into one vast bush toilet by the workers.
Workers at the mine have resorted to relieving themselves here because their makeshift toilets are always blocked and unusable.
Besides the human waste, the smelly bush is littered with waste paper, surgical masks and plastics that workers use in lieu of toilet paper.
When the ablutions problem reached crisis levels a few months ago, the company constructed what seemed to be modern and decent facilities.
But the workers could not use them for long because the toilets soon became unusable as well.
They were perpetually blocked. There is no privacy because the toilet seats are set in two long rows that face each other in an open room without any walls demarcating the rows or the seats.
“I’m sure even prisons have better facilities than these,” remarked one worker.
Workers said the toilets blocked on the same day that they were commissioned because they were badly designed and were too small.
Meanwhile, close by, in the same complex, the Chinese have built themselves decent houses and created a gated community.
A female employee described the ablution facilities as dehumanising.
“As women, we would need decent sanitary provisions but the toilets we use are not fit for human use. They are blocked most of the time, exposing us to health hazards,” she said.
Last month, workers went on strike over various issues including alleged abuse and unfair labour practices.
Vehicles were grounded as drivers protested against the dismissal of colleagues, allegedly without cause and without hearings.
They again refused to work early this month following the sudden death of their colleague.
Gerald Chiriya (39) is now struggling to make ends meet after his contract was terminated on 2 January this year.
He said he and fellow casual workers were never given copies of their employment contracts even though they were forced to sign them.
“Workers live in rat-infested wooden cabins that have no floors and as many as eight people share a small cabin. During the rainy season, water seeps into the cabins and we spend the whole night standing,” Chiriya said.
Masimba Manyanya of Simukai Residents Trust of Goromonzi, an organisation that advocates for the rights of locals employed at the mine, said it was unfortunate that, “people just tolerate poor working conditions and abuse for fear of losing their jobs”.
The Zimbabwe Diamond and Allied Minerals Workers’ Union (ZDAMWU) secretary general, Justice Chinhema, confirmed receiving complaints from PLZ employees.
“The company continues to ignore the welfare of its employees. They have made it difficult for workers to join the trade union.
“Workers have submitted a list of complaints, including unfair labour practices. For example, sick leave is not considered. Workers formed a committee to raise these issues but it was dissolved and contracts were not renewed for those that were part of that committee,” he said.
Recently, the government halted the operations of Bikita Minerals, another Chinese mine located in Masvingo province, for an array of violations that included unfair labour practices and suspected involvement in the illegal exportation of raw lithium.
Prospect has a 15-year lifespan and is expected to expand into nearby claims.
Recent reports indicated that ongoing explorations had yielded richer lithium reserves around Goromonzi.
Goromonzi villagers have since written to the rural district council complaining about possible displacements and environmental damage, but this has fallen on deaf ears.
Goromonzi Prospective Community Trust (GPCT) chairperson, Tadiwanashe Gwena, complained that the villagers were being excluded from mining lithium.
“We implore the government and all mining companies in Goromonzi to allow citizens of Zimbabwe to have the right to extract lithium. We cannot allow Chinese firms to take everything whilst we are made their cheap labour. We have teams ready to extract the mineral, and these are from the community,” he said.
Asked to comment on the litany of allegations against the Chinese mine, Dobbie said, as PLZ, they were satisfied with the work they were doing.
She claimed the company has several corporate social responsibility projects to benefit the community adding that upgrading of workers’ accommodation was at an advanced stage.
According to Dobbie, 80% of contract labour came from the community and this was done with the involvement of community leaders. She said the company also provided transport for workers to and from work.
This story was commissioned by Information for Development Trust (IDT) and published by NewZimbabwe.com