KATHMANDU - In one of the many dusty quarries in Nepal, Sudha began work as a stone crusher when she was just 12 years old. Once she dreamed of an education, but now the burden of work and concern for her family's well-being rule that out. Her wages, though small, are critical to her family's survival. Sometimes Sudha's brother, sister and parents work along side her in the dust and heat, crushing stone to augment their meagre earnings from farming.
Asked why she continues to do this back-breaking, dangerous work, Sudha sighs and stares at the sky. "There is no alternative", she says, adding that for her, this is her destiny - her pre-ordained role in life.
Over one million children worldwide share a similar destiny working in mines and quarries. The incidence of child labour in these sectors is far greater in some regions than others. For example, in the Philippines, nearly 18,000 children between five and 17 perform such work. In Nepal, approximately 32,000 children work in stone quarries. And in Niger alone, a staggering 250,000 children are employed in both small-scale mines and quarries, accounting for roughly half the total number of persons doing such work in the entire country.
These children labour above and beneath the earth, in conditions even adults could hardly stand. Underground, they endure stifling heat and darkness, set explosives for underground blasts, and crawl or swim through dangerous, unstable tunnels. Above ground, they dive into rivers in search of minerals or may dig sand, rock and dirt and spend hours pounding rocks into gravel using heavy, oversized tools made for adults.
Because the money they earn is crucial to ensuring that they and their families survive, many are unable to attend school at all. These children are digging for survival.
A closer look
While many forms of child labour are harmful, children who work in the mining sector face particular danger as the conditions often pose a serious risk to their health and well-being. In the Mererani gem mines in Tanzania, for example, children as young as eight or nine descend 30 metres underground to spend seven or eight hours a day digging through narrow passages without ventilation and with only a flashlight or candle for light. Tunnel collapse is an ever present danger. Sometimes children hide in tunnels deep underground during the blasts hoping to be first to find exposed gems. 'Bonuses' they receive for these finds are their only hope of pay.
Many suffer serious physical injury or lose their lives because of the risks they take. In the absence of proper medical care, injuries and health problems sustained in the course of their work can have life-long effects.
Despite ongoing efforts to eliminate the practice, child mining and quarrying is still found all over the world, most often in small-scale underground and open-cast mines and quarries. There, they work in the extraction and processing of various types of ore and minerals, including gold, silver, iron, tin, emeralds, coal, chrome, marble and stone. Today's child miners do not work directly for big mining companies. They may work for a small local mining or quarrying concern or with their own families on small concessions near bigger mines. They may also work in mines abandoned by multi-national companies when large-scale mining became unprofitable.
Eliminating child labour in mines and quarries requires an understanding of the complex nature of the problem. The small-scale enterprises that employ most child miners are unregulated and often undocumented. Without accurate information on the scope of the problem, it is difficult to address it effectively. Also, many mining enterprises are family-run, with the money from mining often ensuring the family's survival. Children cannot be withdrawn from labour in the mining sector until adequate alternative sources of support for their families are in place. Children who leave mining must then have access to good quality education with real prospects of meaningful employment when they leave school. This is the only real way of breaking the cycle of poverty afflicting their communities.
Putting plan into action
For Sudha and more than a million children like her, life can be better. Through its International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), the International Labour Organization (ILO) is working worldwide to ensure that no child has to toil in a quarry or mine.
Pilot projects undertaken by ILO/IPEC in Mongolia, Tanzania, Niger and the Andean countries of South America have shown that the best way to assist child miners is to work with the children's own communities. Mining and quarrying communities have been helped to organize cooperatives and improve productivity by acquiring machinery, thus eliminating or reducing the need for child labour. They have also been assisted in obtaining legal protection and developing essential services such as health clinics, schools and sanitation systems.
These projects have already begun to prove that while difficult, the problem of child mining and quarrying is not only manageable - it can be solved. One such example is a project in the remote gold mining community of Santa Filomena, Peru, begun in 2000 as part of an IPEC programme covering Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, where an estimated 200,000 children are involved in mining.
Drawing on the ILO model of preventing and eliminating child labour based on an integrated approach to sustainable development, the project helped the community to organize a community-based association to improve working conditions, obtain basic machinery to replace the most dangerous work performed by children, build local programmes to raise community awareness and support alternative income-generating activities for adults so their children don't have to work in the mines. In 2004, the Santa Filomena community declared itself child labour free.
Meanwhile in Mongolia, ILO/IPEC introduced its integrated approach in 2003, where of the 100,000 people who work in informal gold mines, between 10 and 15 per cent are children. The collaborative project between ILO/IPEC and MONEF (Mongolian Employer's Federation) has made great progress in not only improving relations between local authorities, informal miners, and formal mining companies and educating local miners on issues of occupational safety and health, but it has also enrolled former child miners into non-formal education (NFE) and technical college courses.
In Zamaar Soum, for example, 37 children between six and 15 years old have begun an interactive, participatory NFE program that provides a safe and stimulating environment in which to learn. In addition to conventional topics, the NFE program covers issues like child labour, health and safety at work, personal development and working arrangements. It is hoped that these children will be integrated into formal school in September 2005.
The 40 adolescents between 16 and 19 years old who worked in the Zamaar Soum mines have been enrolled in the mining technical college in Erdenet with the aim of moving them out of labour-intensive, hazardous work and introducing them to safe and decent employment alternatives. MONEF and its partners are currently investigating other types of skills training for former child miners and are helping to create job placement opportunities once they complete the courses and are entering the labour market.
While projects on the ground can assist child miners in a direct and practical way, only worldwide awareness of the problem can mobilize the international effort needed to end the practice for good. That is why on this year's World Day Against Child Labour, 12 June, the ILO, with the help of individual governments and workers' and employers' organizations, will be focusing not only on efforts to eradicate child labour in mining and quarrying, but also to help communities find a sustainable footpath out of poverty through decent work opportunities for adults and better education and skills training alternatives for children.
Each day, more children enter the mining and quarrying sector all over the world, and currently the problem is far from resolved. It's a vicious cycle, one in which children are expected to share the burden of supporting their families. But with measures taken to build strong, self-sustaining communities in mining and quarrying areas, the tide can begin to turn, and a growing number of families will have opportunities to provide their children with a better way of life.