Child Labour Still Expanding in Mining Communities in Sierra Leone

– Mariama Khai Fornah

Michael Muana (not his real name) holds a shovel in his hands, digging the dirt in one of the mining sites in Kenema District, eastern Sierra Leone. He looks like a 13 year old, even though he is unsure of his age and believes he is 14.  He is one of the hundreds of children who work in mines in this region, even though the country’s ruling government enacted laws to combat child labour several years ago.

According to a report published in 2009 by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, the diamond sector is the largest contributor to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and export earnings In Sierra Leone. In 2007, Sierra Leone exported US$141 million of diamonds, of which US$100 million came from artisanal mining. In a country with a population of 6.3 million, around 120,000 people are directly involved in artisanal mining.

How far has the phenomenon gone?

According to the IHRC report, up to 10,000 children work at diamond mining sites, and up to 80 percent of these children are reported to work for their parents or relatives.

According to an article published in African Online News in February 2014, a report by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) on core labour standards in Sierra Leone revealed that child labour and forced labour remain a major problem in the country. Furthermore, many children are forced into working in mines.

The report further states that, according to the global trade unionists, “child labour is widespread in Sierra Leone and law enforcement is weak… several thousand children were found to be working in diamond mining, mainly boys… in an environment which closely resembles slave labour.” Even more children work in family businesses or on family farms. Statistics from the report show that an overwhelming 71.6 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 14 years are working, either paid or unpaid.

According to the preliminary findings of a National Child Labour Survey (2010-2011) conducted by Statistics Sierra Leone with support from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 45.9 percent of all children aged 5 to17 were engaged in child labour.  Some 22 percent were identified as being engaged in hazardous work.

Whichever of these statistics is closest to the truth, it is clear that huge numbers of children are still engaging in labour activities and there seems to be no one prohibiting the act.

“The problems we have are the laws which are not being implemented properly,” says Bampia Bundu, Acting Assistant Director at the Ministry of Social Welfare in Kenema. He said that some of the children working in the mines had committed crimes, and had been taken to an Approved School Centre where they were expected to acquire skills and knowledge to prepare them for their return to their communities.

“Some of these kids after going through training go back to their communities and life turns out worse for them than before.” They are inevitably forced to enter into labour intensive activities.

The equipment to aid a successful corrective training for the kids is also a problem for the officials at the Centre.“The centre is meant to be a corrective centre but the system and facilities are lacking which has resulted [in] kids engaging themselves in labour intensive jobs,” Bundu added.

But not all the child labourers have committed crimes. Boys like Michael Muana also go to school but work alongside to provide a livelihood for their families.“I am working in the mines to help my father raise money for my school fees and for food,” he said. His entire body and feet are covered in mud as he struggles to shovel some sand from the mining pit. Michael works after school and all day on weekends- time when his friends are either enjoying leisure or doing their homework.

Some parents support this and even encourage their children to do it.  Many of them are very poor and have no alternative but to reluctantly get their children to work in the mines.

Mohamed Mansaray, a miner, said he normally asks his son to follow him to the mining pit to help with his job, so that they can raise money to take care of their family.

“I am not happy that my son is involved in mining but as a result of lack of finances, I am left with no alternative but to persuade him to follow me so that we can get our daily bread,” he said. Authorities here say the mentality of the parents also poses a problem in the fight against child labour.

Poverty, the main author

Forawa Morepeh Sandy is a teacher and youth leader in Hanga. He says mining is affecting the education of the children living in the community; that most of the pupils in his school are orphans and they are involved in mining because they have no one to support their education, which he says has rendered the children ineffective in their academic work.

Sandy says most parents want to send their children to school but they lack the financial support to help them proceed to higher education. He said poverty is the key factor that pushes the children into mining and this is affecting the educational system in the district. He saysthat parents are always being encouraged to send their kids to school, but some are actually finding it difficult due to lack of financial resources.

Nancy Brima is a single parent with five children,all below age eighteen. She sys she decided to send her children to the mining site because she couldn’t afford to take care of them; she did not have the finances to support their schooling and provide them with food. She says that it was with bitter pain that she allowed her kids to drop out of school and engage in mining. Her children are presently acting as breadwinners in the home.

Nancy says she is not happy with her present situation, but that she has no option but to allow them to mine so that they can put food on the table.

Counsellor Mustapha Koroma is a miner with three children. He says he and his children always go to the mining site because he wants his children to be educated. He says that while the government is encouraging parents to send their children to school but because of inadequate income for his family, they are left with no option but to go to the mining site each day.

If the government provides financial support to take care of hischildren’s basic educational needs, apart from the free fees for primary to Junior Secondary School, then Mustapha would not dare allow his children to follow him to the site. He says he was uneducated as result of poverty, and if his children are also not educated then this would result in a cyclethat would affect the future development of his family and the country as a whole.  Mustapha says his sons have the potential to become influential figures in the country but their dreams would die out if he could no longer support them. “Diamond is a game of luck and one is not sure when he will pick one that will make him become a rich man,” he said.

The mining chief at Hanga, Mohamed Swarray, says they have plenty of minerals in Hanga but they do not have the equipment to mine the minerals. He says miners are engaged in alluvial mining and lack the finances to pay for labour, and as such, they use their children as labourers. They are worried about the future of their children as the mining is affecting their education.

Mohamed says that the majority of the children in the town are involved in the mining and it is a threat to the future of the country. He said the educational system in the town is always seeing a breakdown as children drop out halfway through and go into fulltime mining. “Parents can’t afford to take their children to the hospital when they fall sick as they can’t afford for their medical bills,” he opines.  Children are treated with local herbs thatMohamed saysare also not good for their total wellbeing.

Bampia Bundu, the Acting Assistant Director at the Ministry of Social Welfare, says that the traditional beliefs of fathers in these communities are sometimes the problem: “The typical African father will give birth to many children with the sole aim of using them in labour activities.”

A lost fight in advance!

The local structures that have been put in place to eradicate child labour are not functioning adequately. One of the reasons pointed out by law enforcement officers is their lack of access to mining sites. Also, the lack of adequate and appropriate resources is among the challenges they face in combatting the menace of child labour. The mining areas are sometimes inaccessible and situated far away from the main towns. This is one reason why mining business owners take advantage by employing child labourers.

Detective Inspector Momodu Dumere is the line manager at the Family Support Unit in Tongo. Tongo is the second largest city in Kenema District and Tongo diamond field is one of the largest diamond-producing areas in Sierra Leone.

Detective Dumere says enforcement of the child labour laws rests on the Family Support Unit, but that they are constrained.  “We simply cannot move into these mines where there are alleged cases of child mining due to the distance and lack of mobility,” he says, adding that they depend on traditional leaders to help educate their communities on the dangers and negative effects of child mining.

Some of these community leaders have been giving out information to their people on the dangers of child labour in mines. Chief Lahai, a section chief in Tongo, in the Eastern Region of Sierra Leone, has also been ensuring that children stay away from mining activities.“Many people don’t know the value of their children, and parents should not be blamed because most of them are from poor homes and to send their children away from the mining sites is a big challenge,” he says, emphasising that Tongo fields – one of the major mining areas in the Kenema District – is a cosmopolitan area.

Though there are no statistics to show the number of children involved in mining, the perception of the local people in diamond mining communities is that at least one in every four children is involved in diamond mining either directly or indirectly. Lack of implementation of the Child Rights Act (CRA), and of policies that prohibit the use of children in diamond mines, have led to the proliferation of child workers in the mines. The weak judicial system in Sierra Leone has also rendered the fight fruitless. Cases of child labour in mining communities are either long delayed or are thrown out of court due to poor prosecution evidence. The problem has to be tackled soon if the practice is to stop.

What do the laws say?

Most children are subjected to work and find themselves doing work they don’t desire to do. But it is clearly stated in the Child Rights Act 2007 that no one shall subject a child to exploitable labour.

Sierra Leone has approved both domestic legislation and ratified treaties to guarantee children access to primary and junior secondary education, as well as the provision of adequate health care services. These legal protections oblige the Government of Sierra Leone to implement measures necessary to end the systematic exploitation of children by the country’s diamond industry. Section 90 of the Child Rights states that ”a parent or any other person who is legally liable to maintain a child or contribute towards the maintenance of a child is under a duty to supply the necessaries of health, life, basic education and reasonable shelter for the child.”

According to Section 54 of the Employers and Employed Act (Chapter 212) of the Laws of Sierra Leone 1960, “(1) male persons under the age of sixteen years shall not be employed underground in mines; (2) The employment underground in mines of male persons who have attained the age sixteen years but not that of eighteen years shall be conditional on the production of medical certificate attesting fitness for such work.’’

Moreover, Section 128 of the Child Rights Act2007 states that “the minimum age for the engagement of a person in hazardous work is eighteen years. Hazardous work includes- going to sea; mining and quarrying; porterage of heavy loads; manufacturing industries where chemicals are produced or used; work in places where machines are used; bars, hotels and places of entertainment where a person may be exposed to immoral behaviour.”

Some authorities say these laws are contradictory and can be used by employers to manipulate the rights of children. If an employer is financially able to get a certificate to justify employing a child, then the practice will continue, and nobody will be there to protect the child from being exploited.

Monjama Vangahun is a resident in Hanga Town, where diamonds were discovered in 1935. Ever since, residents of Hanga have depended on mining as a major income-generating activity. With pain, Monjama says that her children are miners. Each day they go to the site and engage in hard work, looking for diamonds to support their family. She says her children go to school but also mine. One of the greatest factors for her sons’ involvement in mining is the Ebola outbreak in the country, which she says had left herwith little choice but to use them as workers for the livelihood of the family.  Nancy thinks that if the government can step up its commitment towards children and come to their aid to help them support their education, sending children to the mine will no longer be an issue.

What happens in the mines?

Ibrahim Nabay, a plot (mine) owner at Weima village in Kenema district, has forty-eight workers who work on an hourly basis. Workers in mines are commonly known as ‘Jagaga’ (workers paid on a daily basis). Nabay has both adults and children working for him in his mining sites and is not hiding the fact that children work for him. In his mines, adults earn fifteen thousand Leones (US$3) per day and the children earn US$1. He has no record of how many children work in his site, as the children work in shifts and they are many.

“I allowed the children to work on the basis that they attested that they are attending school, and are only working to foot school bills or work only during the holiday periods,” says Nabay. Most of the children’s parents have also confessed to him that they could not afford to pay their school fees, so it was on this basis that he allows them into his mines.

Aruna Gamanga has been a miner for over forty years in several parts of Sierra Leone and other West African countries. He is presently mining at Simbaru Chiefdom in Kenema District. He says most of the children that he has worked with in the mines were forced by their parents to do so; before he employed children, he would seek the consent of their parents, especially the father. Those he employs he pays US$2 per day, but these monies are collected from the children by their parents and used for the upkeep of the home.

Gamanga says he has seen children who worked illegally being beaten by adults over little things. He says children lost their lives during the mining process, especially when engaged in diving mining. Some met their death as a result of rocks falling over them. Gamanga says that when adults are engaged in diving mining, owners often employ the children as managers over them, because according to him children are sometimes more honest than adults. Their job description is to stay above the boat and keep watch over the miners. He refers to them as ‘the owner’s eyes’.

Gamanga says children are paid according the type of mining they are involved in. If they are engaged in “Jagaja”, which involves stripping and shovelling, they are paid US$2.They also have what is referred to as ‘dry ground’, where the children engage in hard work by carrying the sands and gravel to the stream where the gravel is being washed. In this system of mining, there is no formal agreement between the employer and the children, and they are paid according to what the employer pleases to offer. He said the highest miner can afford in this type of mining is US$0.50.

Morrie, a 13-year old miner at Simabaru chiefdom in Kenema district, said they are not happy with such an offer but they are left with no other options but to continue working. Morrie said he is in mining because he needs food on his table. “Our employers are taking advantage of us because they know that we don’t have anywhere to go.” He sometimes cries and always looks forward to the day he will quit mining.

Actions to reverse the curse

Massa Kamara, one of the Child Welfare Committee workers in eastern Sierra Leone, says that a series of by-laws have been set up in the region that prohibit adults from allowing child workers. Despite these,she still receives frequent cases of child labour. Most of these cases involve relatives and are difficult to handle. Massa says she organises monthly meetings for parents who are in the habit of taking their children to the mine, in order to encourage them to refrain from doing so in the future. She also provides counselling for the children who are directly involved.

Sia Lakulaja Williams is the former Project Manager for The Tackling Child Labour through Education (TACKLE) project. She says that child labour continues to be on the increase because the existing legal framework is not being enforced, and there are no alternative sources of support to families of child labourers.

Many family members whose children were involved in working in mines were rehabilitated and given small grants to continue small-scale businesses for the livelihoods of their family as an alternative. However, the introduction of small loans to help them did not work well, making it difficult for the families to take care of themselves. Left with no choice, they sent their children back into the mining fields to work.

The Minister for Social Welfare Gender and Children Affairs, Alhaji Moijueh Kaikai, says the government is making frantic efforts to reduce the percentage of children working, through a project titled CYCLE (Countering Youth and Child Labor Through Education) that is implemented by the International Rescue Committee with funding from the US Department of Labour. The project targets children who are either victims or are at risk of child labour exploitation,providing them with educational support in Sierra Leone and Liberia. In five years, about 14,500 children in Sierra Leone benefited.

Despite all these efforts, says Moijueh, children are still involved in labour activities, especially mining, due to the impoverished socioeconomic conditions of their families and communities. The only possible and lucrative employment for school dropouts, he says, is the mining sector of the economy where they dream of getting rich overnight. He says the government has instituted prohibitive laws, awareness raising activities, and advocacy and training programs in communities to try to reduce the incidence of child labour, but that no measurehas seemed successful.

Since 2013, the government has made a moderate advancement in eliminating the worst forms of child labour by launching the Agenda for Prosperity, which includes strategies to address child labour and child trafficking such as making basic education compulsory for all children of school-going age.

Moijueh says that the government will strengthen the local council by-laws, which make provisions for protecting the rights of children, and ensure an effective, consistent and well-monitored enforcement of the said by-laws by putting in place better monitoring systems and mechanisms across the country to check on the status of children involved in mining. He maintains that the ministry will work earnestly to ensure that those found wanting are brought to book.

“All the systems put in place to address child labour have not been effective because of poverty in communities and lack of affordable educational opportunities for children,’’ Moijueh says.

To eradicate the menace however, there should not only be by-laws but an enforcement of those laws. That should be the priority, says Abdul Karim Conteh, Head of Child Labour and International Labour Standards Unit at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security in Freetown. He says the Ministry is working with other child protection agencies to strengthen child welfare committees that have been long set up in the provinces. Conteh maintains that the government would work closely with community leaders to join the fight in the eradication of child mining and dealing with those who employ them. He says the penalty for non-compliance with this policy is the withdrawal of the agent’s mining licence, and that the Ministry of Labour and Social Security is set to ensure that the enforcement of the policy will be rigorous.

The Hon Minister Kaikai says that inadequate advocacy and awareness raising campaigns on child labour at community level, and lack of capacity building of child protection actors on child labour issues at community or chiefdom level, are slowing down the fight against child labour.

This report was produced by Mariama Khai Fornah, with support from Partners for Democratic Change and from the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. It is part of the Access Nigeria/ Sierra Leone program funded by the US Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement

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