As incremental efforts to end child labour by 2025 persist, Congo’s child miners – exhausted and exploited – ask the world to “pray for us”

As incremental efforts to end child labour by 2025 persist, Congo's child miners – exhausted and exploited – ask the world to “pray for us”

A young boy in an artisanal mine in the Lake Kivu region, March 2017. In the east of the DRC, numerous school-age children can still be found digging and carrying bags of precious minerals. Poverty, precariousness and profits generated to benefit certain actors are undermining efforts to eradicate the phenomenon.

(AFP-Belga/Griff Tapper)

In Rubaya, 45 kilometres from the North Kivu city of Goma, in a dozen open-pit mines that quickly turn into mud pits at the slightest rainfall, school-age children work tirelessly, digging, washing, sorting and transporting the minerals niobium, cassiterite and coltan (colombite-tantalites). The strain of this exhausting work shows on their faces. These minerals will primarily be used to manufacture capacitors, which are present in all electronic devices. And as the insatiable appetite of the new digital economy continues to grow, demand for these minerals shows no sign of abating.

Jacques Muhire spends his days working in one of these shallow open-pit mines. As he tells Equal Times, he dropped out of school at the age of 13. “We had no money at home to eat between the two harvests. We had to find a solution,” he explains in a polite but firm tone, as if to avoid reproach. Three years have gone by and he hasn’t set foot in a classroom since. He spends his days carrying bags of mineralised sand, for which he earns between US$3 and US$5 a day, depending on how many bags he transports entirely by foot. “A little more on good days,” he emphasises.

Carrying loads of between 25 and 50 kilograms is exhausting work, but that doesn’t deter young people in the region. About 30 baby-faced adolescents, some around Jacques’ age, some much younger, work alongside him. “But there’s a lot more of us,” he explains. “There’s another team in the morning.” Although Jacques is happy to be able to help his family, he does not hide his concern for his future, nor his sadness at not having better prospects.

The presence of school-age children in these mines has not been met with indifference. The government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has announced commitments in recent years, and the country is signatory to International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions 138 (which sets the minimum working age at 14) and 182 (on the worst forms of child labour).

In 2011, the Congolese government submitted a national action plan to the ILO aimed at ending child labour in the mines. The plan called for “raising awareness about and ensuring enforcement of child labour laws,” as well as “making technical and vocational training accessible,” and “providing access to educational programmes for children rescued from work.” It also included recommendations on “improving living conditions for vulnerable households,” to ensure that socio-economic precariousness does not force families to make their children work. The ambitious programme was never formally adopted, and since then little has been done. In 2014, a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) study estimated that 40,000 children of all ages were still working in mines in the country’s south-east. It is currently impossible to obtain exact figures for the whole country, as there is no register of creuseurs (‘diggers’), the generic term used to designate all of the mineworkers.

Poverty: the first obstacle in the fight against child labour

Mining in Rubaya, one of the region’s main sources of income, is done artisanally. No powerful mechanical diggers can be found in these open-pit mines set against the verdant backdrop of the Masisi Territory in the North Kivu Province. Instead, mineworkers use shovels, picks, and their own muscular arms. With no trucks to transport the minerals, they use their own bodies, some more sturdily built than others, to remove the ore via small paths eroded by the torrential downpours that fall on the region during the rainy season.

Many households rely on this low value-added mining. This ‘opportunity’ drives families in the region to send their children to work to help their parents. The children, already unable to study under good conditions due to a lack of financial means, drop out of school. A report by the local organisation Association pour le Développement des Initiatives Paysannes (ASSODIP), consulted by Equal Times, expresses concern at the frequency of this situation in the area. According to the report, in the 2018-2019 school year, the dropout rate at Rubaya’s eight schools rose from 661 cases, or 28 per cent of the previous year’s pupils, to 991 cases, or 39 per cent.

Aware of the situation, the national government in Kinshasa renewed its 2017 commitment to eliminate child labour in the sector, this time setting 2025 as a deadline. But once again, according to an alternative report published by Afrewatch as part of the Universal Periodic Review of the DRC by the UN Human Rights Council, little has been done. Those familiar with the situation in eastern DRC agree that this commitment is once again likely to fail due to the economic reality on the ground.

“It’s not that parents are happy to send their children to work. They are often forced to do so by poverty,” said Roger Nkambu, who works for the ILO’s Congolese section, on the occasion of the Paris Peace Forum.

Another young miner, Jonas Bwira, whose mental distress shows through his tired face, provides a concrete example: “When I go into the mines, it’s to help my parents provide something to eat for the family.” As the 13-year-old explains: “We’re paid by the number of trips we make or by the work performed. I go into the mine in the morning and in the evening I go home with my money.” His new job as a carrier has the advantage of being less dangerous than his previous one, which required him to dive underwater to put down props.

The poverty that prevailed when the first commitments to ending child labour in the mines were made remains largely unchanged. According to World Bank statistics, in 2012, 77 per cent of the population lived on less than US$1.9 a day; in 2018, the rate was 73 per cent. These figures place the DRC among the countries with the highest levels of poverty in the world. Under these conditions, few observers see how the new commitments can be kept. “We’re well aware that this work deprives us of a future,” says 16-year-old Jacques. “Me, I’d like to do something else. But what? There’s no work here. Pray for us, that one day we’ll get there.”

Evolving mentalities

Nevertheless, the actions aimed at raising awareness and social mobilisation included in the national action plan submitted by the DRC to the ILO have had some positive effects. Putting children to work is now considered shameful. “When researchers or journalists come on site, the managers of the mine pits hide the children. They are afraid that they will be exposed and their ore will not be purchased,” explains Léopold Rutinigirwa, a researcher at the Pole Institute in Goma. The legal operators claim to do their best to send children back to school.

While getting children out of the mines remains priority number one, the issue of pregnant women is also being addressed. “Pregnant women also work in the sector and it’s not without risk to the health of their babies,” says Jacques Mande Banza, inter-professional secretary of the Congolese Trade Union Confederation (CSC) for Katanga. As he tells Equal Times: “They are handling minerals which can contain traces of uranium, without protection, which risks causing malformations in their children. In our work as trade unions, we try to dissuade them from working under these conditions. We inform them of the risks. Most of them are receptive to our arguments. Unfortunately, they often end up returning to this work because they have no other means to earn a living.”

Women are also being encouraged to stop bringing their children to work with them to avoid exposing them to lung diseases related to breathing in ore dust, especially that emitted by cobalt mining. The World Health Organization has repeatedly warned of the negative effects of exposure to this mineral in the short and long term. But here too, as Banza explains, the need to make a living in the short term wins out over long-term health concerns.

To prevent the same causes from producing the same effects, Nkambu of the ILO is calling for “finding alternatives for both children and families”. The National Union of Congolese Workers (UNTC) used the occasion of the release of a report on child labour in the mines to call on the Congolese government to take a more active role in combatting this phenomenon. This includes putting an end to the practice of desperate parents taking their children with them to the mines in order to generate a little more income.

The union has joined forces with l’Institut National de Préparation Professionnelle (INPP) – a public organisation under the umbrella of the Ministry of Employment, Labour and Social Security, supported by, among others, French and Japanese cooperation agencies – to set up training centres for children working in the mines.

The aim is to provide children with an education that will enable them to start a professional career guaranteed to provide for their needs. Over the last three years, 1,800 children from North Kivu who had dropped out of school have received training within this framework. “Some were referred to us by mining cooperatives who decided to clean up their acts following pressure they received against child labour. Others were identified by our outreach workers who regularly go to the sites to meet with out-of-school children. These are young people who have gone through all kinds of abuse: some were used by armed groups before being disbanded, others live in very poor families, young girls are rejected by their relatives because they are HIV positive… the situation is always tough,” Josué Masudi Baruani, provincial director of the INPP, tells Equal Times.

He is convinced that this professional training is the best way to end child labour in the mines and he dedicates all of his energy to convincing political leaders of this. “Young people come to our centres where we teach them technical skills that the country needs: mechanics and masonry, for example. Once they are trained, these young people are able to build a good life. They no longer depend on mining operators who don’t pay them properly because they can earn more with their skills. These kinds of projects show parents and the community that children can be of more help if they go to school. By developing such projects, we will develop our country and end child labour. Unfortunately, we are not yet able to provide training to all of the children who work in the mines.”

Masudi Baruani is convinced that development is crucial to ending child labour. Many mine workers used to be farmers who gave up farming their land because they needed cash. But Masudi Baruani stresses the potential of the agricultural sector: “Even if it doesn’t generate high added-value, it can support the gradual development of the country. Farmers and herders need infrastructure such as roads. This allows them to sell their surplus and generate income. This income is what will dissuade them from taking their children to work in the mines. The progressive development of the country is the only thing that will enable us to put an end to child labour.”

A fragmented sector where enforcing the law proves difficult

Another reason the authorities struggle to end child labour in the mines is the way the sector is organised. The largest mines are operated by multinationals such as Randgold, Glencore, China Molybdenam and Ivanhoe. Despite sometimes very intensive lobbying efforts aimed at maximising their profits, they operate large sites and are well known, making it relatively easy for the authorities to monitor what happens there.

Parallel to these industrial operations, creuseurs have been mining the earth since the 1970s. They produce small quantities of minerals on an artisanal basis. It is impossible to ascertain the formal and informal shares of the overall mining sector due to a lack of data. But the number of artisanal mines remains significant, particularly in the country’s east. Insecurity and lack of infrastructure in the region dissuade multinationals from making significant investments there. Artisanal mining, which was put into place following the decision of former president Mobutu to ‘Zairianise’ the economy in the 1980s, is much harder for the provincial divisions of the Ministry of Mines to monitor as it takes place in geographically remote areas which are sometimes subject to insecurity due to the presence of armed gangs.

“The existence of informal mines allows resellers to obtain supplies at low cost from artisanal miners. They can thus make a profit without having to invest very much,” says Banza of the CSC.

“The scheme is simple. The pits are operated by ‘CEOs’ who resell their goods to operators who have the right to trade in the ore but sometimes don’t even have mines of their own. Operators can resell their goods to wholesalers, who in turn supply customers, often in Asia. This is how the informal economy, which employs child labour, feeds the formal economy. Within just a few sales, ore that has been extracted under illegal conditions becomes legal.” Faced with this situation, the CSC is lobbying the authorities to finally integrate all informal activities into the ‘normal’ economic circuit. “This will make it possible to better supervise what happens on these sites and thus prevent child labour. More generally, it will allow for the enforcement of established rules and thus improve working conditions for all workers,” says Banza.

The new mining code adopted in 2018 should encourage this formalisation of the mining economy. It has been relatively well received by the country’s trade unions. According to an analysis by IndustriALL, the global union that brings together the Congolese trade unions TUMEC, CSC, UNTC and OTUC: “Unions in the DRC believe that the code is progressive, as it seeks to address loopholes that have led to mining companies accumulating profits at the expense of workers and communities.” The primary measure of this new code is an increase in royalties paid by companies to the state: from 2 to 3.5 per cent for copper and gold and, most significantly, from 5 to 10 per cent for strategic minerals including cobalt, coltan and germanium.

IndustriALL, which participated in drafting this new code, is pushing for its implementation despite opposition from mining companies. It hopes that “the slight increase in royalties will give the DRC the necessary capital to develop its mining potential.”

The country will then no longer need to delegate this task, and the profits that go with it, to the multinationals. Participants in a workshop on the subject of this new code organised in Kinshasa in June 2019 (with civil society organisations like the African Association for the Defence of Human Rights, Réseau Sud Congo, and the Natural Resources Network) insist that the provisions of the code should be effectively implemented in their entirety. They point to the need for “civil society organisations to support local communities by informing them of their rights with respect to the new code and making it easier to understand, whether it concerns the fund for future developments, the endowment for community development, etc.”

On the ground, opinions on the application of the new code are very divided. There are recurrent problems, particularly with regard to the redistribution of revenue from the companies to the communes where they are established, as shown by the protests in the chiefdom of Bunkeya in the province of Lualaba, where several localities say the money has yet to materialise. “The government must be more effective in implementing what it announces. It is urgent to move from theory to practice, for the agreements reached to be effectively implemented,” says Banza.

Armed groups and abused children

In addition to mines operated by large mining companies and those operated by artisanal miners, many mines are located in areas where local conflicts are taking place. These mines are part of the war economy, a system in which profits generated go directly to warlords. This structure makes it very difficult if not impossible to enforce standards favourable to the welfare of the workers. This applies to both children and adults.

“Since the government does not control the entire territory and does not always have the capital necessary for the development of the sector, it has been replaced by armed groups who enforce their own laws. Sometimes these are even Congolese soldiers,” explains Fidel Bafilemba, researcher and coordinator for GATT-RN (Support Platform for Traceability and Transparency in the Management of Natural Resources). The military’s involvement in trafficking may come as a surprise at first glance but it is explained by the weakness of the state: unable to pay its soldiers properly, the powers that be turn a blind eye to misconduct. Given these conditions, Bafilemba believes it would be difficult to put an end to child labour.

The International Peace Information Service (IPIS, a Belgium-based organisation that conducts research and collects data on the links between armed conflicts and mining resources in the eastern DRC) estimates that 66 per cent of the mining sites in the country’s east are affected by the interference of armed groups, clearly undeterred by the measures taken by the authorities.

The Congolese government regularly declares its willingness to put an end to this situation in order to enforce its laws. But the country’s armed forces have found it difficult to assert themselves against militias responsible for abuses in the Beni region (where several thousand civilians have been killed by machete or small arms attacks since 2014).

While carrying heavy loads in the scorching sun or in suffocating humidity is exhausting for any worker, it is even worse for young children. But not everyone minds seeing them labour in the mining pits; some readily point to the advantages of these young workers, amongst whom teenagers are seen as elders. “Children are cheaper labour. Plus they’re not demanding, unlike the adults. A group of 30 children can transport three to four tonnes of mineralised sand in a single day, and at a lower cost,” readily admits an artisanal miner from one of the Rubaya mines, who asked to remain anonymous. And the working conditions do not meet any international standards. “We walk for up to two hours in a row with packages weighing between 25 and 50 kg to take the production from the mine to the boss’s warehouse. We often have to pay police officers that ask us for money on the road. When we don’t walk fast enough, we are sometimes beaten because the owner is afraid that we will be robbed of the goods if we arrive too late,” says Jacques.

This situation infuriates UNTC President Tchernozème Kambale, who spoke to Equal Times: “It’s the operators of the artisanal mines who benefit. The children receive nothing but scraps, which allows the operators to do very good business. Unfortunately it is to the detriment of the children’s wellbeing.” He estimates that the meagre pay the child miners receive barely allows them to cover their minimal needs. He doesn’t hesitate to point a finger at the buyers, who he accuses of turning a blind eye in order to continue profiting from the abundance of cheap minerals. “If all of these primary materials were extracted in accordance with the standards, they would be a lot more expensive for the foreign companies who buy them,” he says. Because standards are not respected, miners very often die in accidents.

External pressure to put an end to the abundance of cheap minerals

One avenue sometimes pursued by human rights defenders who are trying to stop child labour in mining is preventing intermediaries from trading in dubious minerals. They cite the effect that the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme has had on the trade of ‘conflict diamonds’. Legislation in the United States (the Dodd-Frank Act, passed in 2010, which requires listed companies to disclose the source of their minerals, which promotes traceability) and Europe (the Conflict Minerals Regulation, passed in 2017, set to come into force at the beginning of 2021) has had some positive effects, though they remain limited.

These rules apply to all companies, especially those at the end of the production chain – such as tech giants Apple and Tesla – who are forced to put pressure on their raw materials suppliers, especially Chinese companies. The latter are increasingly numerous in the mining sector in the DRC, and are hardly more diligent than the Western companies they are gradually replacing. In 2016, an Amnesty International report accused Congo Dongfang Mining, a subsidiary of Chinese mining giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd, of buying ore produced on sites that use child labour.

However, US and European legislation contains significant loopholes. “Criminal networks have been set up to circumvent the rules. They are able to fraudulently re-export minerals via the mines of neighbouring countries,” Bafilemba tells Equal Times.

“All these laws allow the West to have a clear conscience, as these countries don’t want to be accused of sponsoring human rights violations. But it’s not enough,” he says.

He believes that even if the ongoing process of reorganising the sector leads to the certification of ‘clean’ mines capable of providing information on the conditions under which the ore is produced, greater pressure will need to be placed on the companies that benefit from Congolese minerals.

Human rights defenders have denounced this complicity by omission. In December 2019, the International Rights Advocates collective filed a complaint against tech giants Apple, Alphabet (Google), Dell, Microsoft and Tesla. It accuses them of “knowingly benefitting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children in the DRC”. The collective affirms that “these companies are not unaware that some of the cobalt they exploit is extracted by children”. The complaint accuses the companies of being part of a system that forces children to work and takes advantage of the low cost of the minerals to make their profits. The list of defendants could grow as the collective continues to investigate other companies. “We will do everything possible to get justice quickly for the children we represent. In my 35 years as a human rights lawyer, I’ve never seen such extreme abuse of innocent children on a large scale. This astounding cruelty and greed need to stop,” said the plaintiffs’ lead counsel Terry Collingsworth when filing the complaint. Dr Roger-Claude Liwanga, a Congolese lawyer and member of the legal team, hopes that the complaint will mark “the beginning of the end of impunity for those who have been economically benefiting from child labour in the DRC’s mining industry.”

This story has been translated from French.

PS: This report has been made possible by funding from Union to Union, an initiative of Swedish trade unions.