With about 60 percent of the country's workforce, copper mining has historically been the lifeline of Zambia's economy. But lately and because of the fallen prices of copper on the world market, the Zambian economy has been struggling.
Zambian newspapers are full of stories about hundreds if not thousands of mine workers losing or slated to lose their jobs. The latest is the Konkola Copper Mine, the country's biggest mining company which reports say is about to cut one thousand 321 jobs by the end of April this year.
Zambia's minister for mines and minerals development Maxwell Mwale told VOA the dire global economic situation has impacted Zambia's mining industry.
"The areas that they (mining companies) are cutting the jobs are like in the social areas. That is schools, the hospitals and also at the corporate head office, but of course that will include some employees in their business units. Now the impact on our economy basically there'll be a reduction in terms of government revenue through pay as you earn. But the operation of Konkola Copper Mines will continue, though as I've indicated they might put Nampundwe under care and maintenance which has about 300 employees. Obviously that will mean a loss of revenue to government," he said.
Mwale admits that if Konkola Copper Mines goes ahead to cut over a thousand jobs in April it would bring the total number of jobs lost in the mining industry to nearly 10,000.
But he said the Zambian government has told companies like the Mopani Copper Mines to turn their operations over to the government which would in turn find possible private investors.
"We have Mopani Copper Mines which is our second largest operating company in the country. It has indicated to us that they want to close permanently Mufulira Mines and put under care maintenance the Nkana underground operations. Now if they were to close those operations there will be severe negative impact in terms of our economy in terms of the social economic environment of our people in the Copper Belt and also the political implications. So what we have done as a government, we've engaged Mopani to ensure that if they don't want to continue the operation of these mines, they should surrender them to us as a government so that we can transfer them to any would-be private investor," he said.
Mwale rejected any suggestion that the government went back on its earlier promise to nationalize some mining companies as the Mine Workers Union of Zambia have been advocating.
"This government believes that the mining industry should be private-led. We are not at all going to nationalize the mines, but we believe that we should form a very good social partnership arrangement that would take investors as our social partners. So we expect some degree of responsibility from them so that the social well-being of our citizens is not affected," Mwale said.
Mwale praised Zambian mine workers for their patience and understanding of the global economic crisis which has affected the mining industry. But he said government was mindful that the workers' patience might run out, particularly when the livelihoods of thousands of people are being affected.