A Human Rights Problem
(© Calvin Voxx)
The mine headquarters building was at the top of a hill. As they drove
up the long winding road, Alex could see the mine stretch out below them on the
left off the edge of the hillside. Far below, heavy haul trucks and even larger
excavation equipment moved to and fro, the signs of an active mine in the
throes of the daily frenzy of activity. Like tiny ants, Alex could even make
out people scurrying back and forth, a stream of workers departing from a bus,
and another line of them waiting to refill the same bus. Shift change.
Alex tried to soak in every possible detail he could. He did not know
in particular what he was looking for. In fact, he knew very little about
mining operations. But he knew that the thing about human rights abuses was
that when you looked, they generally were not that hard to find. The
sweatshops, the unsafe labor conditions, the exposure to toxic chemicals – it
was all there. Usually, it wasn't a lack of visibility that was the problem. It
was that no one wanted to acknowledge what their eyes were seeing. His job was
to be a clear set of eyes.
They parked and Liu ushered him inside. "Later," Liu said, "we will go
down to the pit and talk to the miners and even walk through the mines, if you
wish. Everything is open to you." This is a mantra Liu would repeat multiple
times that morning. "We have nothing to hide. Ask and we will answer. Demand to
see, and you will be shown." It was true, Xichou Enterprises, the Chinese
umbrella contractor whom Liu was representing, had been aggressive in their
assertions of transparency from day one. And the more they said it, the more
Alex began to get the feeling that they had something to hide. Perhaps that was
an unfair bias, but either way he planned to take them up on their offer.
The morning began with introductions, a slideshow presentation giving
an overview of the mine and its supporting facilities, and a brief description
of the basic functions of the mine. Alex paid special attention to the
satellite overview of the mine, looking for any telltale signs of hidden
facilities or off-grid production plants where abuses might be occurring.
Buildings, for example, that were unlabeled or power lines running to
facilities that were off the edge of the map. There was nothing so obvious, but
that meant little, only that if they had something to hide they were at least
making an effort in doing so. Images could be doctored, of course, with little
difficulty. The overall theme of the presentation was that there were a host of
precious rare minerals buried in Yunnan province in southern China, mining them
was challenging work, and the workers here were well taken care of, paid more
than adequate wages for their work, and were generally happy and loyal to the
company. It was more propaganda than substance, but at least it was brief and
then they were on their way. Xichou had clearly taken heed to Alex's pre-trip
instructions to minimize the time spent sitting in briefings and to maximize
seeing actual facilities in action, with briefings while they drove or walked.
And so they plowed forward.
"You will see," Mr. Liu was saying as they strolled through the mine
infirmary, "we have state-of-the-art medical facilities here on site.
Accidents, while rare, do happen, and our workers will not suffer while they
wait for medical evacuation to a city hospital. We have thirty first-rate care
suites, as well as triage space to handle three hundred injured, which is the
entire shift capacity at any one point in time. Of course, we do not anticipate
ever needing to treat so many wounded, but as the saying goes, 'It is better to
Alex nodded, unsure whether Liu was quoting a Chinese saying or an
American one, but in any case the sentiment was indisputable. In one of the
exam rooms, each of which was really just a gurney and monitoring equipment
separated by hanging sheets, but in that respect no different from American
emergency rooms, Alex saw a worker being examined by a doctor/nurse. Alex
watched while the medical professional moved a light slowly across the field of
vision of the patient, while the worker tracked with his eyes.
"All of our workers receive free semi-annual medical checkups," Liu
said. "We see our workers as an investment. Their health is the health of the
company. We have found, through a rigorous process of examination of our best
miners, that experience matters, that a subset of our miners routinely collect
more ore and more valuable ore than the other miners. Their productivity is not
related to pay or age, but rather by the amount of years they have working at
the mine. There is a skill – one that is hard to capture, mind you – to the
mental process of looking through the rock and finding the best veins of ore.
Anyone can be trained to do it within a few weeks. But like many things, to do
it well takes thousands of hours of diligent practice. Here, we have tried to
better quantify what makes that practice work. And I believe we are coming up
with some answers."
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