Dirty and dangerous: Child miners in Africa
Caren, 12, and her mother spend hours each day sifting through filthy water in hopes of extracting minerals. (Darcy Wintonyk/CTV)
Published Tuesday, June 17, 2014 4:02PM PDT
Last Updated Tuesday, June 17, 2014 4:04PM PDT
Caren, 12, squats in a pit of filthy water sifting through sand with her mother in hopes of extracting minerals.
Children like Caren -- and their parents -- walk as far as 20 kilometres every day to work at this copper ore and gold site in Nyatike, Kenya. The work at this mine, formerly owned by a British company in the 1950s, is repetitive, dirty and desperate. If there is no gold, there is no money.
Caren stopped going to school because she couldn't afford to buy a new uniform, and the chances of her returning are slim. Around her, small children haul loads of rocks bigger than they are and pound boulders into road gravel for hours on end.
I watch as a father and mother and their young son Brian pound rocks together to extract large hunks of copper ore out of the ground. At the end of the work day they have enough to fill a large bag. After a middleman takes a 20 per cent commission for carrying the load, the family is left with around $8. That means they were each paid around 30 cents an hour for their backbreaking labour.
This site is just one of dozens in the area. This one hasn't had any fatalities, thankfully, however there have been many accidents. It's not uncommon for children to fall down open mine shafts or become injured in a tunnel. Exhaustion, pneumonia and tuberculosis are commonplace here.
School dropout rates in this district are the highest in the country. The problem skyrockets when gold is found in a local community and parents flood in to mine sites with their children and negotiate with the owner to let them work.
A large-scale problem
Sites like these are remnants of what’s left behind from Western mining projects. The companies come in and mine the earth with heavy equipment and sophisticated technology for anything of value — gold, copper, cobalt and other minerals. Once the companies leave, after taking all there is, locals use rudimentary tools — hammers, chisels, picks, shovels and sometimes their bare hands — in an effort to extract anything that's left.
Kenya is rich in resources: Mining.com says more than 300 firms are exploring the country and producing its resources after positive findings for deposits of gold, copper, titanium and zinc. Kenya's ministry of resources says the profits will total $670-million annually, but the majority of that money will leave the country with the Western companies.
A consequence of the commercial boom is a rise in artisanal mining, where locals move into the abandoned mine sites after the Western companies leave. Local charities that work in the area told me the increase exacerbates child dropout rates and illness in the area. Watchdog group Mining Watch Canada says foreign mining companies operating in Africa have few restrictions – which poses serious risks for the health of the nearby communities.
An estimated 15,000 children are already working illegally in artisanal mines across Kenya’s Nyatike district alone. World Vision says mining work is especially harmful to growing children, and can permanently damage their growing bones and muscles. What's worse: the minerals they’re working with are often hazardous. Exposure to uranium and mercury are not uncommon, especially at the Kenyan gold and copper mining sites, and exposure can cause profound health effects. Tuberculosis rates in the Migori region are staggering — 37 per cent — and local health officials say they see a raft of respiratory infections in miners working in the dusty conditions.
Between 30 and 50 per cent of the workforce at gold mines in Africa is made up of children under 18, according to the UN International Labour Organization. They're seeing children as young as four and five working at the sites.
It’s not just happening in Africa: Artisinal mines dot the countryside in dozens of countries across the Asia-Pacific, as well as Central and South America. The ILO says there are a million child miners worldwide, mining everything from gravel to gold.
Poverty comes into play
The conditions may be brutal, but it’s easy to see why so many flock to mining work. There aren't many jobs here where you can get paid with cash every day, and it's hard to tell kids to go back to school when they're earning a living that pays money regularly.
“The reality is that these families are dependent on the little bits they can get out of these places for an income,” said World Vision’s Cheryl Hotchkiss.
Under its new No Child for Sale campaign, World Vision is hoping to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by putting pressure on the Canadian government and big business to take a stand against unethical business practices.
It's also trying to empower communities in Kenya through its sponsorship programs, which provide families access to things like clean water, agricultural tools and livelihood training — in the hopes families will have the income to pay for the health and education of children, so they won't have to go to work.
“Children should be protected from the worst parts of these jobs,” Hotchkiss said. “This is no work for a child.”
CTV Vancouver producer Darcy Wintonyk travelled to Kenya to tour development projects with World Vision in May 2014.