YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Event though the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the richest sources of mineral wealth in the world, the people of the country remain among the globe’s poorest.
Even worse, many of the miners are children, risking their lives to try and save their families from poverty.
Dominicans for Justice and Peace, a Catholic NGO, have been raising awareness on the issue at the United Nations.
The organization’s program coordinator, Laurence Blattmer, told Crux that children are subjected to heavy work at a young age, such as cleaning, sorting and transporting minerals.
“In most documented cases, the age of these children varies between 9 and 15 years,” she explained. “However, there are also younger children who accompany their mothers into the mines.”
This is especially a problem in the artisanal mining sector, which are small individually owned mines not associated with larger mining companies.
Blattmer said children work long hours and in dangerous conditions without any protective or safety measures.
“The exploitation of children in the mining sector is a major obstacle to the realization of their right to education. Mining and the mineral trade divert students living near mine sites from their way to school,” she said.
“Working in the mines provides a small livelihood, which is not insignificant for families living in extreme poverty. Families sometimes prefer to send their children to the mines so that they can bring home some money rather than send them to school, which is not free most of the time,” Blattmer continued.
What follows are excerpts of her interview with Crux.
Crux: There has been an international outcry against child miners in the Congo. What is the extent of the problem?
Blattmer: Despite the recent legislative and institutional changes introduced by the Congolese government in the mining sector, we remain concerned about major gaps in the implementation of laws that have led to the persistence of the phenomenon of child labor in several regions of the country, such as the former Orientale province, Katanga and Kivu.
The legal framework for the protection of workers in the mines has only recently undergone major changes with the revision of the Labour Code in 2016 and the Mining Code and Mining Regulations in 2018.
The State has established the National Sectoral Strategy (2017-2025) to combat child labor in artisanal mines and artisanal mining sites, as well as the Three-Year Action Plan (2017-2020). It states that the national strategy provides for the prohibition of access to mining sites by vulnerable persons, including pregnant women and children. However, no specific information is provided on measures to combat the employment of women and girls in the artisanal mining sector and to monitor these sites.
What is the proportion of children working in the mines?
Dominicans in the DRC as well as civil society on the ground observe a persistence of child labor in the artisanal mining sector. However, there is a lack of accurate statistics on the presence of children in artisanal mines.
How would you describe their working conditions?
Children are subjected to heavy work at a young age, such as cleaning, sorting, and transporting minerals. In most documented cases, the age of these children varies between 9 and 15 years. However, there are also younger children who accompany their mothers into the mines. Children work long hours and in dangerous conditions without any protective or safety measures. They work in barely tolerable heat, in clouds of red dust with very little light, amidst the cries of the miners and the sound of hammers in the shafts.
In 2018, the Congolese Ministry of Mines launched traceability and monitoring system for artisanal mines to detect cases of child labor. However, despite new initiatives to address child labor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is making minimal progress. What do you think accounts for lack of progress?
On August 31, 2017, the Minister of State in charge of Employment, Labor and Social Security announced the sectoral national strategy to combat child labor in artisanal mines and artisanal mining sites, in which the Democratic Republic of the Congo recognizes the presence of children in this sector. Through its six strategic axes, the DRC is committed to eradicating child labor in this sector by 2025. We believe that this strategy is a symbolic commitment, but implementation remains insufficient to date. There is still a lack of concrete, alternative and sustainable solutions for families who send their children to the mines.
The Service d’assistance et d’encadrement de l’exploitationminièreartisanale et à petite échelle (SAEMAPE) is the main government agency responsible for monitoring artisanal mining and is therefore responsible for the implementation of the specific axes of the national strategy. However, this body suffers from a serious lack of human and material resources.
How comes that the DRC has such huge mineral wealth, and yet its peoples have remained so chronically poor?
One of the main problems is the corruption and misallocation of funds from the mining sector for the socio-economic and cultural development of local communities.
In order to support the economic, social and cultural development of communities affected by industrial mining activities, the revised mining legislation of 2018 established two mechanisms for the direct sharing of certain revenues from the mining sector between the central state, provinces and decentralized territorial entities/local communities.
These mechanisms include the payment by mining companies of 15 percent of mining royalties to local entities where mining projects are carried out. However, the funds from this 15 percent mining royalty are shared between the local government and the provincial entities and are essentially allocated to consumer spending and operating costs of local entities in lieu of projects allowing for the realization of the economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) of local communities.
Are you in any way trying to get the kids out of the mines? What arguments do you put forward for trying to get the kids out of the mines? What alternatives do you offer them?
Dominicans for Justice and Peace accompanies the engagement of Dominicans in the DRC on justice and peace issues with advocacy actions at the UN in Geneva. In recent years, we have repeatedly delivered oral statements at sessions of the Human Rights Council (HRC) on the human rights situation in the DRC, especially on the issue of child labor in the mines. Our last statement dates back to March 2020 and focused on the consequences of mining on ESC rights in the DRC. We also organize side events during the HRC sessions, the last one jointly organized with the NGO WILPF and addressing issues affecting Congolese women and girls, including the impact of mining activities. In addition to oral statements and side events at the HRC, we actively participated in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the DRC and invited a Dominican partner to Geneva to testify on the situation of the mining sector. Finally, we regularly organize bilateral meetings with delegates from permanent missions to share our concerns on the issue.
The exploitation of children in the mining sector is a major obstacle to the realization of their right to education. Mining and the mineral trade divert students living near mine sites from their way to school. Working in the mines provides a small livelihood, which is not insignificant for families living in extreme poverty. Families sometimes prefer to send their children to the mines so that they can bring home some money rather than send them to school, which is not free most of the time.
Through our advocacy work at the UN, we have strongly advocated for the importance of making compulsory schooling free in order to reduce the number of children in the mines.
What are your thoughts on President Tshisekedi announcing free primary education?
This is a positive step, but it must be accompanied by awareness-raising activities for families working in artisanal mines and by social and economic policies that will lift families out of poverty. Without this, the risks of children continuing to work in artisanal mines are high.
The low school enrolment rate of women strongly influences the presence of women in artisanal mines, which also impacts on the presence of children in the mines, as in many cases children follow their mothers in the mines. Empowering women so that they can leave the mines themselves becomes another key aspect in reducing the presence of children in artisanal mines.
What are the risks for children doing that hard, punishing work?
The work that children do at mine sites puts them at great risk of various injuries and choking from landslides. In addition, there is a real risk of fatal accidents due to the sudden influx of water into wells. Also, the operating conditions of mineral processing can, in the long term, have serious consequences for the health of these children.
What is else is Dominicans for Justice and Peace doing on this issue?
Among the main issues on which we focus our advocacy at the UN at the moment is the issue of misallocation of resources coming from the mining sector, which we believe, is a core problem that keeps the population in poverty. We call on the Congolese Government to :
– Adopt regulatory measures on the allocation of funds derived from the 15% mining royalties intended for local entities, in accordance with the provisions of the mining regulation.
– Train officials of decentralized territorial entities in the participatory and transparent management of funds derived from the 15 percent mining royalties.
– Ensure the regular inspection of the management of funds derived from the 15% mining royalties, intended for local entities so that a maximum is allocated toward the realization of the ESCR.
– Set up a project monitoring and evaluation system allowing the realization of the ESCR, financed by the mining royalties of 15 percent.
More specifically with regard to child labor in mines, we call on the Government to:
– To endow the SAEMAPE, in charge of the implementation of the specific axes of the national strategy, with the necessary means to implement the national sectoral strategy (2017-2025) to combat child labor in mines.
– Evaluate, update and effectively implement the action plan of the national sectoral strategy (2017-2025) to combat child labor in mines.
Finally, we are planning to organize during the 45th session of the HRC in September, 2020, a webinar on the impacts of the mining sector on the ESCR in the DRC, bringing particular experiences from local experts.