KATANGA PROVINCE, Democratic Republic of Congo — One year after adopting the National Action Plan for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor, authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are still struggling to stop the growing scourge of child labor in small-scale mines.
Forty percent of the two million people working in the DRC’s artisanal mines are children, according to World Bank. Minerals extracted by children in Katanga include coltan, cobalt, copper and others. Coltan is a fundamental material in the fabrication of modern electronics because of its ability to hold high electric charges. And cobalt is used to produce rechargeable batteries for hybrid electric vehicles, laptops and cell phones.
During my recent trip to the DRC’s rich mining province of Katanga, I documented numerous cases of child labor and forced labor in artisanal mining sites near the cities of Kolwezi, Likasi and Lubumbashi.
The children I met there were performing multiple tasks, such as digging, sifting, washing, and lifting heaving loads of heterogenite, an ore rich in cobalt and copper minerals. They ranged in age between 5 and 17 years.
One of the children that I interviewed in an open pit mine at Musonoi in Kolwezi was named Paul. At age 17, Paul was extracting cobalt and copper when I came to talk to him.
“I work every day, except Sunday. From 6 am to 5 pm,” he said. “I began working in the mines when I was 15 years old because my poor mother could not pay school fees and buy food for me and my siblings.”
Paul’s story is common in the mining sites in Katanga. Children are involved in mining work mostly due to poverty, lack of alternate opportunities in remote mining areas and ignorance of the law prohibiting child work in the mines.
In a sample of 63 child miners surveyed, only one in four are able to go to school part of the day. Seventy-five percent of those children were dropouts who work more than 10 hours per day. Their earnings range from $0.75 to $3 per day.
The labor conditions in the artisanal mines are also extremely hazardous. Children use their bare hands and feet to extract minerals, and lift heavy loads of ore weighing up to 150 pounds. The lack of even minimal security and workplace precautions in the mines exposes children to high probabilities of fatal accidents, injuries and sicknesses. Minors suffer from exposure to radioactive minerals, poor ventilation and inadequate lighting.
In the mine of Kapata, I met a boy called Ilunga whose leg was covered with plaster. Ilunga told me, “a big stone fell on my leg while I was trying to get out from the mine hole in which I was extracting copper ore.”
Two miles from the mine, I interviewed Hortense, who told me with tears on her cheeks about her 13-year-old son who died while digging for minerals in January 2013.
The average number of child deaths from soil collapses in the province of Katanga alone is about 6.6 per month. Approximately 20 percent of children surveyed said that at least one of their family members or friends had died in the mine in the last three years.
Congolese Labor Code prohibits children under eighteen from working in mines. But the legal prohibition has been ineffective and there are few initiatives to address the roots of the problem.
One wonders whether something could be done for children working in DRC’s mines. If so, should Americans be part of the solution?
Of course, the answer to both questions is yes. The problem of child labor in the DRC’s mines goes well beyond the Congo’s borders.
Minerals extracted by child miners are exported from the Congo to Asia for refining. From here they are sold on the world market and purchased by electronic and automobile manufacturers located primarily in developed countries, including the United States.
There is a strong probability that some parts of your electronic device were constructed with minerals emanating from the work of a child who endangers his life for the cell phone or MP3 player that you cherish.
Solutions will only come from the combination of efforts to eradicate poverty, provide free primary education, and (inter) national grassroots campaigning against this scourge.
Next time you use your cell phone or turn on your laptop, think about the child’s labor that makes it possible. Now ask yourself what you can do to save these children from such a life. There are many organizations around the Boston area that are developing programs to stop child exploitation in the DRC, and Promote Congo is one of them. To support our efforts, please visit our site.
Roger-Claude Liwanga is a human rights lawyer from the Congo and visiting scholar at Boston University. He is the co-founder and executive director of Promote Congo, and is currently directing and producing a short documentary, “Children of the Mines,” which will be launched shortly in Boston. He writes in his personal capacity.