World Vision has documented the voices of children kept out of school to work in a copper and cobalt artisanal mine in the southern Democratic Republic of Congo and has found that “this type of hard labour is robbing children of their childhood.”
Child labour in developing world garment factories is a tragic, known occurrence but a new report on children as young as eight toiling away in African mines sheds light on a forgotten group.World Vision, a Christian relief organization, documented the voices of children kept out of school in order to work in a copper and cobalt artisanal mine in the southern Democratic Republic of Congo. The key goal of this project, entitled “Child Miners Speak,” was to build trust and talk specifically to children to ask them how they feel about working in the harsh conditions of the mines, said Harry Kits, World Vision’s senior policy adviser for economic justice.
“This type of hard labour is robbing children of their childhood,” Kits said in an interview Thursday. After speaking with 50 children in Kambove, aged eight to 17, World Vision documented children ill with various infections from working in polluted water or being exposed to mercury or uranium. Children were frequently exhausted, their arms, legs and bodies sore from endless physical labour. They faced daily dangers of falling into rock crevices or drowning while trying to access minerals, the agency said. And they are often kept out of school in order to earn a meagre wage to help feed their starving families. As well, children younger than eight did go into mines in the area, however, they were felt to be too young to interview for this report.
“Artisanal mining means picking stones off the surface or tunnelling into loose rock piles, which is really dangerous,” Kits said. “This is where rock slides happen, rocks come lose and people are killed.”
Small scale or artisanal mining consists of digging, washing and sorting minerals all by hand. An astonishing 40 per cent of artisanal mining workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo are kids, the report said.
What is collected is sold mainly to Chinese and Congolese business interests, Kits said. Of the 50 children interviewed — the youngest being nine — 19 per cent of the kids told World Vision they had seen a child die while working, 87 per cent felt severe body pain, 67 per cent had frequent or persistent coughing and many of the girls had genital infections due to standing in waist-deep toxic water to work.
“Sometimes, kids, particularly boys, are in the tunnels because they are smaller and they can fit,” Kits said.
Jean, an eight-year-old miner, starts his day at 6:30 a.m. in Kambove and he works until mid-afternoon, when he then tries to catch a bit of the school day, the report noted. The money he earns helps pay for his education, but, he has already been held back because he is frequently absent.
“Since working here, I have problems with my skin, body pains and pain in my eyes,” he told World Vision.
With a population of 72 million, the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of Africa’s biggest, most populated sub-Saharan countries, rich in mineral wealth estimated to be nearly $24 trillion.
But it also has one of the lowest living standards in the world. Only 46 per cent of people have access to clean water and the under-five mortality rate is 168 per 1,000 live births, the report noted.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates nearly 53 per cent of 215 million child labourers engage in hazardous work, such as mining, but there are no adequate statistics due to a lack of proper records.
The ILO has warned the growing bodies of children who mine are exposed to greater health risks. Their developing brains can absorb and retain heavy metals more easily than adults, children’s rapid breathing means they ingest more toxins and dust and since their enzyme systems are still developing they are less able to detoxify hazardous substances, the labour organization added.
There is evidence that these health problems are occurring — along with increased still births and birth defects — but there are few health studies to prove it, Kits said. And preventing children from mining isn’t as easy as it sounds, he added. “There is no linear or logical answer. It is a matter of regulation, of helping the community dealing with fundamental problems in the DRC and the problems of building a livelihood for these families,” he said. To simply create regulations without looking at the entire picture could increase poverty and reduce already dismal living standards. “It is a complicated challenge,” Kits said.