Workers at a Chinese-owned cement plant in Mozambique have been effectively imprisoned for a year.  Locals were displaced to build and operate the factory, and still live in temporary housing nearby.
Workers at a Chinese-owned cement plant in Mozambique have been effectively imprisoned for a year.  Locals were displaced to build and operate the factory, and still live in temporary housing nearby. (Grant Lee Neuenburg for VICE World News)

‘We’re Being Treated Like Slaves’: Factory Workers Stuck in Yearlong Lockdown

A Chinese company has effectively imprisoned workers in a Mozambique cement factory for over a year, a VICE World News investigation found.
August 24, 2021, 2:45pm

Nádia has barely left the Dugongo Cimentos cement plant in southern Mozambique in more than a year. At the plant, she has been “working like a slave,” she said. Nádia, whose name has been changed to protect her from retribution, hasn’t seen her family in a very long time. Since the beginning of 2020, she has seen her children mainly through the plant’s gates.

An investigation by VICE World News found that along with some 300 other workers, Nádia has been virtually held captive at the plant since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. While rushing to get the plant ready to operate, the workers inside the Dugongo Cimentos compound said they were told by their bosses that they could leave if they wanted to, but that they would also lose their jobs, and with them the ability to keep feeding their families in a country where poverty and unemployment are the norm. Instead, most have stayed and worked long hours in grueling conditions, since Dugongo put its workers on an unofficial "lockdown" in March of last year. 

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Though it's been in the works for years, the plant in Matutuine only started production in early 2021, and was officially opened on May 26. It received wide government support and President Filipe Nyusi gave a speech at the ceremony hailing the transformational effect the plant will have on construction in Mozambique. But behind the facade of industrial progress is a tale of Chinese and Mozambican companies keeping workers away from their families and kicking a community off its land in search of profit.

“We’ve realized that, after all, they were just taking advantage of the disease to be able to exploit us even more.”

At the inauguration, the plant’s CEO, Victor Timoteo, also paid tribute to the dedication of the workers. “I want to thank the workers who have continued tirelessly with their tasks, even when COVID-19 was at its peak,” he said. “The admiration for them is impeccable, for having accepted to remain far from their families so that the factory could continue working.”

The workers, however, tell a different story. Cheap cement has come at the cost of locals, they said, and the plant has bypassed environmental regulations—all with the blessing of Mozambique’s ruling party.

“They used to say that we were stuck here because of corona,” said Nádia. “We’ve realized that, after all, they were just taking advantage of the disease to be able to exploit us even more.”

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Nádia’s meager salary of $200 a month goes straight to her family, but it still isn’t enough to feed her three children, the youngest of whom is 9. Despite her working without a single day off, including weekends, the money Nádia makes “is not enough to feed them, and my mother, and pay for my projects,” she said. 

Her mother, who relies on Nádia as well, told VICE World News that the company forced her to leave her land. “When my mother had her vegetable patch, she helped us with food, but now they all depend on my salary,” Nádia said. That’s why Nádia can’t leave the cement factory to visit her family: She would lose her job and their only chance at survival.

According to eight workers interviewed by VICE World News, Dugongo pays them between $3 and $4 for a 12-hour day, but their pay is docked by $8 for each day they are absent due to sickness or exhaustion. Work starts at 6 a.m. and runs to 6 p.m. Though they get a two-hour break for lunch, laborers said they are fed only if they work an extra hour, until 7 p.m., to earn it. At night, they sleep in dormitories. Recently, the plant has taken on more workers than it has beds for, so two workers have to squeeze onto each single bed.

The Dugongo cement factory in southern Mozambique officially opened on May 26, 2021.

The Dugongo cement factory in southern Mozambique officially opened on May 26, 2021. (Grant Lee Neuenburg for VICE World News)

The abusive situation at Dugongo was first exposed by Mozambican media in August 2020. Local newspaper O País interviewed a 13-year-old girl who was looking after her younger brother since their mother, who works at the plant, had stayed inside for fear of losing her job since March 30, 2020, at the start of the state of emergency decreed by President Nyusi. The girl sees her mother once a month to collect her salary, O País reported. Dugongo company representative Elias Machava told O País at the time that keeping workers locked in, as the state of emergency was renewed from month to month, was not the intention—and they would be released the following week. 

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But Mozambique never did go on lockdown—something Timoteo highlighted at the inauguration. “I want to thank the president for not decreeing a lockdown,” he said, “because if he had, the investors from [West China Cement] would have transferred their investment to another country. We had agreed that work must continue.”

“All I want is bread for my children.”

Over a year later, the workers have yet to be released—with the exception of a period of one month earlier in the year, when the plant had a COVID-19 outbreak. But now they are back, forced again to live at Dugongo. 

“All I want is bread for my children,” said one man standing in front of his house across the road from the plant—having snuck out when his 12-hour shift finished, to spend his downtime with his wife and children. “[But] if they see me here, my bread’s over.” 

The man, whose name has been withheld to protect him from retribution, said he worked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. every night, without a break for weekends or holidays. “The Chinese say, ‘Take a day off when you're dead,’” he said. It’s difficult for workers to speak out: 15 of them were fired last year on suspicion of having spoken to journalists from O País about their plight, one of their colleagues told VICE World News. The man who said he worked all night said one thing has improved, however: The factory managers don’t beat the Mozambican workers like they used to.

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José Benedito Luís and Catarina José Matlhava stand with five of their six children outside of their temporary housing near the cement factory. Matlhava worked in the plant for a year until she was let go in May.

José Benedito Luís and Catarina José Matlhava stand with five of their six children outside of their temporary housing near the cement factory. Matlhava worked in the plant for a year until she was let go in May. (Grant Lee Neuenburg for VICE World News)

He worked at the plant for three years, without a formal contract  and without benefits like sick leave. “If you get sick, you can't go to the hospital; you stay in your bed,” in the dormitory bunk rooms, he explained. “Your pay is cut if you're ill. If you're ill for a week, your salary is over.”

Along with other workers at Dugongo, he said that the real reason they were locked in had nothing to do with coronavirus and everything to do with getting the long-delayed plant up and running. Shortly after speaking with VICE World News in December, he was laid off in January—and paid Mozambique’s standard severance of one month’s salary for each of the three years he worked. He was not compensated, however, for holiday time or overtime, let alone for the nights spent essentially locked in the plant.

Olímpio Panhela, 61, also lives across the road from the plant, and worked there for six and a half years, until the project changed hands in 2019. Most of the staff were fired at that point, he said, and new workers were brought in, like his son, 28-year-old Dulvio. Dulvio has since found another job outside the plant, but he said that colleagues still working there “are living in inhuman conditions.”

The business dealings of the companies involved in the cement plant are murky. The Dugongo cement plant is owned by SPI Gestao e Investimentos, a front company for Mozambique’s ruling party, Frelimo, and West International Holding, a Chinese cement company domiciled in the tax haven of Jersey, a UK dependency in the English Channel.   

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SPI Gestão e Investimentos and Dugongo Cimentos are both headquartered at the same modest house in Maputo’s up-market Sommerschield neighborhood, a short walk from the headquarters of Frelimo, Mozambique’s ruling party since independence in 1975. 

SPI was founded in 1992, in the early years of Mozambique’s transition away from communism, the ideology espoused by the country’s first President, Samora Machel, to capitalism, guided by Joaquim Chissano, who served as president from 1986 to 2005. SPI is integral to Frelimo’s finances, and the company is described in Mozambican press and civil society reports as the “financial arm” of ruling party Frelimo, or “Frelimo’s holding company,” though SPI’s relationship to Frelimo is not formally acknowledged by either side. 

The beginnings of the Dugongo plant go back over a decade. In 2008, SPI entered into a joint venture with China International Fund (CIF), one of a group of companies in Hong Kong that is informally referred to as the Queensway Group, led by Sam Pa, a mysterious Chinese businessman who once reportedly worked in Chinese intelligence. (CIF now seems to be defunct, and its website has been removed from the internet.)

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A woman walks toward the Dugongo cement plant.

A woman walks toward the Dugongo cement plant. (Grant Lee Neuenburg for VICE World News)

Pa and his companies became notorious for their deals in Southern Africa, particularly in Angola, where CIF won billions of dollars worth of projects. In Zimbabwe, investigators accused Pa of financing the secret police, well known for abusing human rights, in return for diamond concessions which were themselves obtained after local prospectors were brutally expelled. Many of Pa’s dealings allegedly resulted from his relationships with various African ambassadors to China. Guinea’s ambassador to China “played a key role in helping the [Queensway] Group gain access to senior officials in Conakry,” and “Angola’s consul general in Hong Kong sits on the board of directors of one of Queensway’s Singapore-registered joint ventures,” stated a 2015 report by the U.S.’ Africa Center for Strategic Studies. 

Pa did little business in Mozambique, as far as official records show, but he did enter into one project: the Dugongo cement plant. Pa’s joint venture company with SPI, CIF-Moz, also owns at least two mining licenses adjacent to the Dugongo plant in Maputo province.

The business dealings of the companies involved in the cement plant are murky.

As the project was being set up in 2009, one of Pa’s Queensway Group companies made a loan of just over $300,000 to Mozambique’s ambassador to China, Antonio Inacio Junior, as revealed in a court filing in Hong Kong in 2012. Despite facing corruption charges in 2012, for which he was twice found guilty and never exonerated, Inacio Junior remains a senior figure in the ministry of foreign affairs in Maputo, and head of the body dealing with refugees.

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He agreed to meet with VICE World News but refused to speak on record about the loan. Instead, he said VICE World News’ reporter was too young to be involving himself in “problems like this.” But VICE World News learned from another person close to the project that the $300,000 was indeed related to the cement plant project—and that Inacio Junior was responsible for distributing the money to relevant people in Maputo for project approvals.

In 2010, the cement plant project was given the green light. A sign on the site named the contractor as CCESCC, the Chinese state-owned China Chemical Engineering Second Construction Company, and promised that construction would take 24 months. 

In 2015, a few years after construction began, Pa was arrested in China—and little to nothing has been heard of him since. CIF’s failure to complete the project on time could have been predicted by its partners in Frelimo: By 2007, a year before SPI entered into the joint venture with CIF, “it became clear that the [Queensway] Group was failing to deliver the promised infrastructure” in Angola, the strategic studies report stated. “By mid-2007, the majority of CIF’s projects in Angola had come to a standstill,” the report said, though they did build a brewery and a cement company, which the state has since confiscated and is now trying to sell off.

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Following Pa’s 2015 arrest, SPI took over CIF’s stake in 2017, meaning the Frelimo front company now owned 99% of the project company. A year later, it transferred a 45% stake to a newly registered Mozambican company called Guhava Serviços—which in turn put half of its stake into a company it formed in the tax haven of Mauritius. Well-connected business people in Mozambique had never heard of Guhava’s directors, José Bento Declésio Venâncio and Albano Antonio Maringuetela, and VICE World News was unable to track them down. SPI also did not answer VICE World News’ questions about who owns Guhava. 

SPI then found a new investor in 2019: West China Cement. Moçambique Dugongo Cimentos was then established in November 2019. West China Cement did not respond to multiple emailed requests and calls for comment about their involvement with the cement plant. Mozambican corporate records also show that West China Cement has also bought into another cement plant project in Mozambique, in Cabo Delgado, the far northeastern province of Mozambique that is currently in the grip of a violent insurgency.

 Mozambique's President, Filipe Nyusi, speaks at the Dugongo cement factory inauguration in May.

Mozambique's President, Filipe Nyusi, speaks at the Dugongo cement factory inauguration in May. (Grant Lee Neuenburg for VICE World News)

In general, no one involved with the cement plant responded to requests for comment. SPI did not respond to repeated requests for comment from VICE World News, and Victor Timoteo, the CEO of Dugongo Cimentos, referred VICE World News to the company’s director general, Sa Qi, who did not take three calls, nor respond to WhatsApp messages in Portuguese and English, which WhatsApp showed that he had read.

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Machava, an SPI executive who also represents Dugongo Cimentos, was wary about talking to VICE World News when presented with a series of questions about how SPI was involved in the plant, and he rejected various requests for comment—first arguing that VICE World News’ reporter was not a real journalist, then claiming that a letter sent by VICE World News did not have the correct stamp on it, then finally not responding to a letter that SPI accepted and signed for.

Caifadine Manasses, Frelimo’s national spokesman, also did not respond to questions about the party’s involvement in SPI and the cement project. 

At the very beginning, concerns immediately emerged about the southern cement factory’s work. A report released by Mozambique’s peasants’ union and environmental action group Justiça Ambiental in March 2011 noted that locals living on the land needed for the project had been persuaded to abandon their land, including fields where they grew food, and graves where they had buried their ancestors, in return for $62.50 per household. The report quoted locals who said they felt cheated, and whose health was being affected by dust created by the mining and construction works. 

A total of 232 families were due to be resettled by the project, according to Avelino Muchine, administrator of the district of Matutuine, where the plant is located. Speaking in a documentary produced by land rights NGO Centro Terra Viva (CTV) in 2012, Muchine said that a location for the resettlement houses had been found and the situation resolved. When Centro Terra Viva asked Muchine in 2015 about the continuing issues facing residents, he told the NGO he wasn’t aware of any problems, though he acknowledged the delay in resettlement. In 2016, CTV tried to interview him again but found he was no longer a district administration: Muchine had just been promoted to be Frelimo’s First Secretary for Maputo Province. VICE World News tried numerous times to contact Muchine, without success.

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Under Mozambican law, a project of the plant’s scale requires an environmental and social impact assessment, and a resettlement action plan that is approved by the community. This, as far as VICE World News can find, has never happened, despite the project taking place right on the edge of the Maputo Special Reserve national park. None of the companies involved responded to questions over whether they had conducted an environmental or social impact assessment.

Helena Mathlave was displaced from her home that is now occupied by the Dugongo cement factory. She has been temporarily moved across the road from the plant, which can be seen in the background.

Helena Mathlave was displaced from her home that is now occupied by the Dugongo cement factory. She has been temporarily moved across the road from the plant, which can be seen in the background. (Grant Lee Neuenburg for VICE World News)

Instead, locals were maneuvered off their land, according to reports by civil society organizations and residents. Locals were instructed not to bother planting crops that have a longer cycle, as, they said they were told, the investors already had the rights to the land, according to a report from Centro Terra Viva in 2012. Locals also told CTV that the state-owned electricity company EDM refused to install electricity for people living on the project’s land, knowing they would soon be kicked out. 

João Nhampossa, a Mozambican lawyer specializing in human rights, told VICE World News that “a project of that size can only go ahead after a public consultation and the approval of an environmental impact assessment and attribution of an environmental license. It’s also incomprehensible how the project would get as far as starting production before regularizing the resettlement of the population directly affected.”

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Though one room was supposed to be guaranteed per family, there wasn’t enough space and now toilets serve as the home for at least one household.

Late in 2020, however, one small group of locals was resettled to make way for a limestone quarry to supply the cement plant. José Benedito Luís is one of those resettled residents. His family used to live on and farm fertile land where the quarry now stands, but along with 11 other families, they now live in concrete blocks built surrounding a nearby dirt yard in a facility originally built as temporary accommodation for Chinese workers. Though one room was supposed to be guaranteed for each family, there wasn’t enough space, so now toilets serve as the home for at least one household.

For over a year, Luís’ partner and the mother of their three children, stayed inside the plant in order to keep her job. In May, she was let go and offered a 7,000 meticais ($113) payout, which she refused. “I worked more than two years, and now they just want to give me 7,000 in compensation? I refused to take it because it makes no sense,” she said. “My [monthly] salary varied from 11,000 to 13,000 meticais, but now they only give 7,000 in compensation? That’s not even one [month’s] salary.”

Even though his family is now together and outside of the plant, life in the resettled area is hard, Luís told VICE World News. They’re not used to living in such close quarters with their neighbors. Not everyone gets on with each other, and there’s little to do. Dugongo Cimentos fills a water reservoir once a month to provide the community with water that typically lasts a week, Luís said. For the rest of the month, they use a tap a five-minute walk from their homes on the edge of the cement plant.

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José Benedito Luís and his son Junior were displaced by the cement factory. They currently live in temporary housing. 

José Benedito Luís and his son Junior were displaced by the cement factory. They currently live in temporary housing. (Grant Lee Neuenburg for VICE World News)

One local, Maria Machava, has farmed land on what’s now the quarry for 40 years, she said, until she was suddenly resettled to this encampment. Now, she doesn’t have any land and the little farming she manages to do next to the camp is what sustains her household of three adults and five children. Even farming on the neighboring scrap of land is prohibited by the Chinese managers at the cement plant, she said—but she has no choice, if her family is to avoid starvation. 

Families were also forced to exhume and rebury their deceased relatives’ remains—though the cement company did transport the remains from the old cemetery to a new one. A 2016 report by Centro Terra Viva notes that “Cif-Moz resettled the dead, and left the living to suffer pernicious consequences.”

“Adeus to the crisis,” proclaimed Mozambican newspaper Publico on May 31, 2021, reporting on the opening of Dugongo Cimentos. The newspaper, also owned by SPI, hailed the fact the plant will be the first in Mozambique to produce clinker, a vital ingredient in cement which the country previously had to import.

But the crisis is far from over for the plant’s workers, and for the community whose lives have been destroyed.

Hundreds of workers are still virtually held captive at the Dugongo cement plant in Mozambique.

Hundreds of workers are still virtually held captive at the Dugongo cement plant in Mozambique. (Grant Lee Neuenburg for VICE World News)

On the day of the presidential inauguration of the plant, most of the plant’s workers, whose numbers have ballooned to 600, were hidden away in dormitories, one told VICE World News. The workers had also been given personal protective equipment days before the inauguration, he said—after years of working without. 

For the president’s benefit, the plant was switched off, so his visit wouldn’t be disturbed by the deafening noise it makes, for roughly two minutes every 15 minutes, day and night. Locals and workers alike said they have not had a good night’s sleep in years.

“We’re still being treated like slaves.”

And for the hundreds of workers like Nádia still trapped in the cement plant, the emancipation promised by Frelimo—the Mozambique Liberation Front, which took control of the country almost half a century ago from its Portuguese colonizers—is a long time coming.

“I am a liberation veteran,” said Artur da Conceição Amaral, who worked at the Dugongo plant until January this year. “We didn’t fight to be enslaved again, but rather to feel free in our own country. But now it seems the fight was in vain, because we’re still being treated like slaves.”

Follow Tom Bowker on Twitter.