Wed 5 Mar 2008, 15:50 GMT

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By Shapi Shacinda

LUSAKA (Reuters) – Chinese management of Zambia’s Chambishi smelter was in the process on Wednesday of firing more than 500 employees following riots at the plant, a union official said on Wednesday.

The riots on Tuesday highlighted tensions between Zambian workers and Chinese managers in the mining industry — the country’s economic lifeblood — while Beijing pushes ahead with a relentless investment drive in Africa.

Albert Mando, general secretary of the National Union of Mining and Allied Workers (Numaw), said workers were sent home and dismissal letters were being prepared. He said seven union officials were arrested, which was confirmed by police.

“We have been taken by surprise because the union has been told all the workers, over 500 of them, are in the process of receiving dismissal letters. The workers have been given three days in which to appeal against the dismissals,” Mando told Reuters by telephone.

There was no immediate comment from Chambishi’s management.

The riots over pay at the smelter on Tuesday injured a Chinese manager and damaged property, officials said.

INVESTMENT POLITICS

Zambia’s vast copper mines are a major employer in the southern African country and its leaders are under pressure to show Chinese investment will benefit its 12 million people.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa has vowed to fight political opponents who try to limit or frustrate Chinese investments in the mineral-rich southern African nation.

The growing presence of Chinese firms in Zambia has prompted an anti-Chinese backlash in some parts of the country, with the main opposition party accusing Mwanawasa of allowing the Asian newcomers to exploit workers.

China has focused its African ventures on mining companies as well as oil to feed its exploding economy. But is is diversifying into areas such as banking.

The country’s investment drive in Africa has drawn fire from Western nations and aid groups, who accuse Beijing of turning a blind eye to misrule, corruption and human rights abuses.

China argues it is spreading prosperity in the world’s poorest continent where the West has failed.

The police chief for the restive mineral-rich Copperbelt province, Antonnell Mutentwa, said the seven union officials had been apprehended to help police with investigations.

“We will decide the next course of action after interviewing them and conducting investigations,” Mutentwa told Reuters by telephone.

Chambishi Smelter, which will cost more than $200 million to construct, is part of China’s planned $900 million investment in the mining town of Chambishi, which the government has turned into a tax-free economic zone to attract Chinese investment.

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