Transforming lives on four continents

Combating child labour in Congo

Posted by Mission Catalyst at 10:51 on 27th May 2010

A case study, written by the International Labour Organisation's Susan Gunn, about tackling child labour in D R Congo, where BMS has a long tradition of working.


D R Congo has been notorious in recent years for child labour in the mines of heterogenite (an ore with contents including cobalt, copper and zinc) and gems - precious to the rest of the world for both luxury and industrial uses.

The interminable conflicts there have created fertile conditions for exploitation. To counteract the years of mismanagement of the mines has necessitated a major lay-off of formal mine workers.

The result has been an upsurge in the number of small-scale miners who exploit the company concessions using artisanal techniques outside the framework of the Mining Code.


Artisanal mining has also considerably increased these last few years due to a higher global demand for cobalt. The precise number of workers in informal or artisanal mining is not known, but is likely to be well over 100,000, of whom 40 per cent are estimated to be children under 18 years.

Working conditions in artisanal mines are poor and often very hazardous. A recently conducted survey on working conditions of children in mines found that children as young as seven work in the same conditions as adults. Some are digging, as it is easier for them to crawl into narrow holes, but most are washing, sifting and transporting the minerals. They have been among the victims of deaths and serious injuries in the mines.

Children work in mines for the same reasons as adults: economic necessity. Many children typically begin to work in mines during school holidays; some then drop out of school completely because their family cannot afford to keep paying their school fees. As a result, 66.6 per cent of the interrogated children do not go to school and about 77 per cent of them have only one meal a day.
The factors contributing to child labour in the mines are many. On the supply side, the main reason is of course the poverty, unemployment and vulnerability of their families.
The survey indicates that 61 per cent of the parents disapprove of the fact that their children work as it indicates a loss of parental authority. But it is also true that parents become, over time, very dependent on this additional contribution to household income.
These past years, there has been increased awareness on the part of the government, civil society and the international community about the problematic expansion of artisanal mining and in particular about the involvement of children in this activity.
The collapse of the Shinkolobwe mine (from which uranium was extracted to produce the first atomic bomb) in July 2004 also drew attention to the great health hazards artisanal miners are facing every day and to the lack of regulation of artisanal exploitation.
In 2005, in celebration of the World Day against Child Labour under the theme 'elimination of child labour in mining', the provincial government embarked on a campaign to raise public awareness on the dangers and illegality of children working in mines.
The mayors of the cities of Likasi and Lubumbashi have formally forbidden the access of children to mines. As a result, the largest association of artisanal miners, EMAK (association des exploitants artisanaux du Katanga), has chased out children from the mining areas but most of the time children have found ways of getting back in. Again, the absence of educational or employment opportunities is annihilating all efforts to prevent them from working.
There is political will on the part of the national and provincial governments and from the local authorities (mayors) to eliminate child labour in mines but the economic, educational and employment context of the province requires enough investment to address the problem in a more comprehensive way, ie looking at both the supply and demand side of child labour.
It is therefore fundamental to mobilise all resources available, and in particular to identify ways that the big international mining companies can contribute to this fight.

Susan E Gunn is Senior Technical Specialist in Hazardous Child Labour at the United Nations' International Labour Organisation.


Read more in Mission Catalyst, issue 1/07


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