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Child Mining: The Cost of Technology

One hundred kilometres inland from the Congo’s lush green forests and deep blue rivers, seven-year-old Lukoji awakes at five o’clock to begin work in the local heterogenite mine. He lives in Katanga Province, somewhere on the outskirts of civilization. As he walks three miles to the mine, in the early light of the morning, the landscape blends into the road, making it almost invisible. The dull colour of dirt and dust seem to blanket the whole earth, like a sweeping and unconditional misery of tedium, a lack of freedom, diversity, or opportunity. The rest of the world seems unreachable beyond the horizon.

Lukoji will spend his morning above ground, sifting and washing heterogenite, before he heads out to school in the afternoon. His older brothers, twelve and thirteen, are not so lucky. They will work eleven hours today, extracting minerals from inside the deep, narrow, and precarious tunnels of the mine. With bare hands and feet, and zero protective gear, the boys risk sickness, permanent injury, and death. At the end of the day, they may earn anywhere from $0.75 to $3. Then, tomorrow morning, they will do it all over again.

Child mining is pervasive. Though mining is a difficult and dangerous job for adults as well, children are particularly susceptible to trauma and illness, as they are in the midst of development. The International Labour Organization estimates that over one million children around the world work in mines and quarries. This is considered among the worst forms of child labour, and one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. It’s not difficult to see why. In Guatemala, children as young as five work in stone quarries, carrying heavy loads, breathing in fine dust, and suffering dehydration from prolonged hours working in the sun and heat. They risk injury from explosives and flying shards of rock, as well as disease from tainted water. Children in salt mines in Niger and Senegal suffer exposure to corrosive salt elements, which can permanently damage their skin and vision. Similarly, child gold miners in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mongolia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, are exposed to mercury – a neurotoxin that attacks the nervous system, used to separate gold from rock in the local gold mines. Child miners risk tunnel collapses and falling rocks, as well as disease from breathing in toxic gases. With little to no protective gear or proper training, serious and permanent injury, illness, and death, are common.

An estimated 6 children die each month due to soil collapses in heterogenite mines in the DRC alone. The DRC has approximately 64% of the world’s coltan reserves, and in fact, serious conflict has arisen over coltan mining, including the eight-year-long Ituri conflict. Coltan is a fundamental mineral in most modern electronics for its capacity to hold high electric charges. The mine where Lukoji works is Chinese-owned, and the cobalt and coltan that he helps clean go into making automobiles and cell phones for the world market. In fact, Apple products (such as cell phones) are most commonly assembled in China, with coltan extracted from mines in Africa. Of course, Lukoji is unaware of this. He thinks that the minerals end up at the local (Chinese-owned) depot down the road, when in fact, that cobalt went into making the rechargeable battery in my iPhone. Knowing all this, it’s difficult not to feel guilty somehow. But the story is further complicated.

Child miners face hardship long before they enter the mines. They are born into poverty and like Lukoji, they often live on the outskirts of civilization. There may be a school nearby, even a local clinic, but in general, they lack the most basic public services. Most child miners are school dropouts. Their decision to work in the local mine hardly qualifies as a ‘decision,’ given their lack of options. Sixteen-year-old Adam from Tanzania risks his life twelve hours a day for a bag of rocks which, if he’s lucky, may contain traces of gold. Without even the illusion of choice, Adam travelled fifty kilometres last year when his local mine shut down and he needed to find work elsewhere. With their lack of education, twelve-hour workdays, six to seven day weeks, insignificant pay, and vulnerability to injury and illness, those who work in artisanal mines are the poster children for poverty traps.

It is difficult to underestimate the hardships they face. Young boys in the DRC are exploited both as miners and child soldiers, as many of the small-scale mines in Katanga are owned by local militias. In Côte d’Ivoire, boy miners are so overburdened by the physical abuses of mining, including constant sickness and exhaustion, that they commonly abuse amphetamines just to get through the day. One can only imagine the traumatic experience for a five-year-old girl who is forced to go down into the deep, narrow pits of a mineshaft in order to drain water. Story after story illustrates the endless shocking tragedies of child miners all around the world. In general, the mines that employ child labour are local, small-scale ‘artisanal’ mines, often illegally operated. In fact, most countries that employ child miners have explicit laws against child labour, though these are rarely (if ever) enforced. The raw minerals from these mines are exported on the world market, to surprisingly little benefit to the country.

But this is not just Africa’s, or Asia’s, or Latin America’s story. Child mining has a long history in the West through the Industrial Revolution. Until the early twentieth century, children were favoured to work in coal mines, due to their ability to fit into small passages. They were also favoured for their cheap labour and because they were easy to manage. Eventually, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a series of laws were passed which began to limit working conditions for children. For example, in 1833, a Royal Commission in Britain recommended that children 11 to 18 should work a maximum of “only” twelve hours a day. Coal miners commonly suffered from respiratory ailments, mutilating accidents, and exhaustion. Children were killed frequently. Of course, children didn’t just work in coal mines. They worked in textile factories, mills, department stores, and more. In fact, the very notion of ‘childhood’ as a developmental stage is fairly recent in history. Children have been labouring alongside adults for as long as we know.

Today, however, child labour is recognized as an egregious human rights violation. It is heavily legislated against in most countries, although, as mentioned earlier, not always enforced. To be clear, child labour is considered to be any kind of work which interferes with a child’s health and/or education, and impedes physical, mental, or emotional development. This is in contrast to child ‘work’ where, for example, children help out on the family farm, but still have time to play and go to school. Children who work in mines and factories represent some of the most common experiences of child labour today.

So we can all agree that children should not be allowed to work in mines then, right? Actually, no. Certain development economists, such as Ha-Joon Chang for example, believe that developing countries would be better (or at least should be allowed) to follow the development models undertaken by now developed countries back in the dark days of the Industrial Revolution. That is to say, if child labour helped Britain and the Netherlands and America develop economically in the beginning, then why should Niger and Ghana and China (where children are employed as factory workers) be told that they cannot employ child labour? In essence, maybe lax laws (among other things) will actually increase incomes, promote development, and eventually children won’t need to work in the mines anymore. This is not to say that child mining is a good thing. It is to suggest that it may in fact be the lesser of two evils. As Martin Wolf puts it, “these children work not because their parents are more wicked than those anywhere else, but because of their poverty.” What other options do they have? It is possible that the only sustainable solution to such a horrendous crime against children is the slow and brutal (and in no way inevitable) process of development itself.

So what can we do? In the late 1990s, campaigns against blood diamonds focused on boycotting. Diamond mines were operated by African warlords under inhumane conditions to help finance wars in places like Sierra Leone and Liberia. These campaigns were largely successful because they encouraged the public to insist that their diamonds be conflict-free. Unfortunately, assuming that cobalt and copper and gold mining in Ghana is the same as diamonds in Liberia is problematic. Boycotting minerals from small-scale mines around the world may in fact only contribute to the problem. With few resources in artisanal mines, child miners are already paid so little for so many hours of work, and do without costly protective gear. With less money going to artisanal mines, the children will most likely end up working just as hard for less, given their desperation and lack of options.

One must also be careful not to throw money into the situation. Of course, it would be amazing if we (those of us with even the smallest amount of excess resources) could substitute a child’s labour. Indeed, some organizations promise that you can do this. By giving them money, which they will then directly offer to the child, who will, because of you, no longer have to toil in the mines for twelve hours a day. Beware, first of all, that this may not be true, or at least not in a way where your money is directly puts into the hands of the child. Not to mention, it does nothing to address the systemic causes of child mining. As well, it may contribute to a system of aid and giving which has the potential to counteract positive development initiatives. Development economist William Easterly refers to this idea of development as “the white man’s burden.” We may think that, as people with resources, it is up to us to save those child miners, when perhaps it is not.

At the end of a long article depicting the shameful and deplorable conditions of child mining, it is difficult to write that perhaps there aren’t any easy solutions. Maybe the first thing we need to do is understand how complicated the situation really is. Maybe that will lead us to understand the invaluable experience of those who live within those communities where child mining is prevalent. In fact, development initiatives are in many ways moving away from international aid donations, towards the promotion of grassroots movements. We understand more and more, that communities on the ground know better than us what is needed to incite change. We should, first of all, understand that child mining is a serious problem attached to many of the modern products we see on the world market today. Secondly, we should give credence to the fact that social, economic, historical, and moral factors make this a complex situation without any simple, guilt-free, Band-Aid solutions. Thirdly, let’s keep talking about this.

By Layne Carson

Jan 12, 2015
Category: Issue Briefs