Child labor prevents children and adolescents from exercising their right to education, and it infringes upon their right to health. It hinders their right to leisure and recreation, thus robbing them of their childhood. It constitutes a serious violation of the fundamental rights of children and adolescents, and therefore elimination of child labor should be a priority issue for any development agenda.
Nevertheless, this problem persists all over the world, being particularly common in impoverished countries in the southern hemisphere. Child labor and poverty are intimately linked; indeed, while it is not the only factor, child labor is both the cause and the consequence of poverty.
Child labor can take different forms and manifestations, with the degree of harm to children depending on the type of labor. The highest priority is to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, which, as described in International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 182, include: slavery or similar practices; forced or bonded labor; servitude; recruitment for prostitution, pornography, illicit activity, drug trafficking, and armed groups; and hazardous work, defined as labor that can harm the health, safety, and morals of children.
Among the types of hazardous work – also included in ILO Convention 138 – mining is considered to be one of the most harmful. Within the mining sector, child labor is most common in the subsector of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM), which is carried out in rural settings within a context of prevalent poverty, informal employment, and lack of opportunities. Given the relationship between poverty and child labor, undoubtedly many vulnerable families view their children’s work as a potential source of income. By limiting their children’s access to education and in turn their social mobility, the families thus perpetuate the vicious circle of poverty. Worldwide, it is estimated that one million children work in ASM, performing heavy labor such as digging, diving into tunnels and flooded rivers, carrying heavy loads, pounding the rocks into smaller pieces, and, in the case of gold, grinding the ore and mixing it with mercury (ILO, 2005).
This is why the international instruments addressing child labor are numerous, notably the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; and the ILO Conventions mentioned previously. At the regional level, child labor is also considered in regional human rights systems, since it is an issue of human rights.
As such, child labor in mining is a problem that merits special attention. Yet, it is not specifically mentioned in the above instruments. ILO Convention 182 contains a general category of hazardous work, without specifying what types of work it involves. According to the convention, this decision is left up to each ratifying country, which must periodically publish a list of hazardous work. Child labor in mining should be included in these lists.
Colombia is one of the countries that has signed and ratified all major international treaties on child labor and made efforts to eradicate it, especially the worst forms. In 2013 the Colombian Ministry of Labor and Social Security passed Resolution 3597, enumerating the activities it considered the worst forms of child labor, and mining was listed. The legal document clearly prohibits the use of minors under 18 years old in the mining sector, which includes ASM. For this reason, an analysis of the Colombian case is of particular importance when assessing the degree of effectiveness between the establishment of regulations and their application in the field.
Colombia has one of the highest presence of ASM, and also of child labor in mining. Although in recent years the prevalence of child labor in Colombia has declined, from 10.2% in 2012 to 7.8% in 2016, it is estimated that 869,000 underage workers are still affected. Despite the reduction, nearly half of the children (404,000) live in rural areas, where the rate of child labor is double that of municipal capitals (13.5% compared to 5.7%) (DANE, 2016). In these rural areas, the government has less of a presence, poverty affects 42.8% of the inhabitants (DNP, 2013) and reaches approximately 74% in the mining districts (Hernán and Pantoja, 2013), and children face a lack of access to education, all factors that lead to child labor in its worst forms, including mining. Children can be found working in every component of the mining operation, from sorting to hauling, extracting, and processing, exposed to the risks implicit in this work (Fondo Acción, 2016).
The existing regulations and diverse efforts made by government and civil society – notably the Somos Tesoro project, in which the Alliance for Responsible Mining participates alongside Pact, Fondo Acción, and Fundación Mi Sangre – do not appear to be sufficient to guarantee the rights of every boy and girl across the country.
Progress made notwithstanding, it is evident that the complexity of child labor, particularly child labor in the mining industry, demands that greater efforts, investment, and inter-institutional coordination be made. Stand-alone regulations are not enough if they are not enforced at the local level. Because of its close relationship with poverty, elimination of child labor requires a local development approach. Additionally, the informality of the ASM sector, marked by an absence of controls and the lack of income, creates further breeding ground for the use of child labor. Furthermore, the poor access to schooling or the low quality of education are other factors that, as has been verified by the project Somos Tesoro, encourage school desertion and underage employment.
Undoubtedly, the issue must be addressed from its root causes, through multi-level efforts effectively coordinated among multiple stakeholders, involving not only civil society, but also the private sector (especially ASM microentrepreneurs) and the state. In order to close the gaps, the responsibility for the regulations needs to be proactively transferred to the local actors involved. These groups require capacity building in implementing a local human development approach and applying an understanding of the endogenous factors that bring about child labor.
Author: Ander Arcos Alonso, Coordinator of Somos Tesoro at the Alliance for Responsible Mining
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