Reflections from a Trip to DRC Mining Communities: The Time is Now for a New Approach to Child Labour Remediation

The town of Kolwezi lies in the shadows of mines, large and small, formal and informal

A recent business trip by The Centre’s CEO Ines Kaempfer and Director of Services – Asia, Africa and Americas, Cecilia Tiblad Berntsson, led us to the Kolwezi region in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where The Centre, together with partners, has set up the first Hub for Child Labour Prevention and Remediation. Upon arriving, we were immediately confronted with extreme levels of poverty, especially in the informal cobalt mining communities. The living conditions we encountered were far from ideal, characterised by a constant shroud of dust due to their proximity to the mining operation, as well as a lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Most families do not have running water in their homes, and must fetch water at wells and carry the heavy canisters back under the scorching heat. Even more concerning is the fact that water in this area is contaminated with heavy metals and other pollutants caused by mining activities. These challenges have given rise to various health issues, with children suffering from eye problems caused by the persistent dust, and families grappling with respiratory ailments. A high number of birth defects and other issues affecting women and children have also been reported.


During our visit, we had the opportunity to visit a legal mine with a designated concession, where approximately 16,000 individuals are employed in various roles. These roles span the spectrum, from geologists and engineers to truck drivers, security staff, and cleaners. However, as many of these professionals come from outside the local community, only around 5% of the adult population in the vicinity secures employment within the legal mine. This leaves the remaining 95% of adults searching for alternative income sources, which are unfortunately scarce beyond the mining sector.


“It's truly striking how, apart from mining, there's virtually no other industry in the Kolwezi area. It dawned on us that mining is the linchpin of the region. For a 16-year-old without the fortunate opportunity of school and high-level employment, there are hardly any other choices than artisanal mining.

Once children start working in mining, we are generally dealing with the worst form of child labour where young lives are in immediate physical danger. But the work and related stresses also take a huge toll on their mental well-being.  I’ve never seen children with such poor psychological health,” Ines Kaempfer, CEO of The Centre for Child Rights and Business commented on her recent trip to the DRC.

A housing community at the foot of a mine in Kolwezi, DRC


Despite these challenges, there is potential for inclusive growth and economic diversification that the mining industry can offer. The mining sector, especially in resource-rich countries like the DRC, has the potential to generate significant revenue and employment opportunities. When managed responsibly and inclusively, mining can play a pivotal role in lifting these communities out of poverty.


While many mining companies invest in community development, support services, and initiatives such as schools, healthcare and entrepreneurship, more is needed to ensure that the mining industry's growth is inclusive, and sustainable and contributes to resilient communities. The lands in Kolwezi are immensely valuable for mining, making investments in other sectors including agriculture less appealing. The landscape itself bears witness to this conundrum, with extensive terrain alterations caused by mining operations that leave little room for agriculture, eroding the incentives for farming as a sustainable livelihood. The cost of living is also higher in Kolwezi compared to other regions of the DRC due to the reliance on imported consumer goods and food.


Our comprehensive study titled “Opportunities for Businesses to Promote Child Rights in Cobalt Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining” unveiled alarming statistics. It showed that nearly one-third of children between the ages of 6 and 17 in artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) communities in Kolwezi are not enrolled in schools. Even more concerning is the fact that 46% of these children's families depend on their income for survival, while 44% work to pay for their schooling. Without a well-devised long-term plan of action, this disheartening cycle is destined to continue indefinitely.


“In the presence of such mineral wealth and operations that the world depends on to tackle climate change, it is disheartening to see so many children out of school and in child labour. Companies need to recognise the broader impact of their operations, and engage in activities that support inclusive growth and positive impact for the children of Kolwezi,” Cecilia Tiblad Berntsson, Director of Services – Asia, Africa and Americas, added.


Recognising the imperative need for a structured remediation system for vulnerable children that provides long-term support, The Centre took a significant step in 2022 by establishing the Child Labour Remediation Hub in Kolwezi, with financial support from the Fair Cobalt Alliance. The primary focus of The Hub is to implement sustainable solutions that reintegrate children into education and decent employment.


Drawing valuable insights from past child labour remediation initiatives in the Kolwezi region, The Hub has crafted a model founded on the principles of collaboration and long-term support.


The approach adopted by The Hub is not centred around introducing a new initiative but is firmly rooted in supporting existing efforts. The foundation of The Hub comprises an association encompassing a total of seven local Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), serving as the legal entity of The Hub. The primary objective is to enhance the local capacity for case management.


“The HUB must take a pragmatic approach, beginning with a small but well-executed initiative. We initiated a pilot phase involving 20 children, collaborating with six NGOs that are part of the Hub Association. We also have 9 active case managers, with 13 additional junior case managers having passed a refresher training. It's a gradual process of expansion,” Ines said.


Our mission is to support children through a child labour remediation programme that draws on a network of CSOs, trained case managers and collaboration with the local government as well as other local and international NGOs engaged in child protection and development. Each child has a dedicated case manager that will support their education and development until the age of 16 years (the minimum working age in the DRC) including paying school and tuition fees and monthly living stipends to keep them out of work. Major mining corporations are investing in community services, such as schools, health centres and entrepreneurship, as preventive measures against child labour. While these measures represent a positive step, there is a resounding call for further action to eliminate child labour risks and provide immediate remedial support to children in informal mining communities.


As The Hub moves forward, the seven collaborating organisations will continue to receive technical and guidance support. The Hub's journey has already seen the initiation of collaborations with government agencies and other organisations present locally, with a strong emphasis on alignment of activities.


“We’re bringing together existing networks such as catch-up class programmes that will be integrated into The Hub, and regular exchanges with the government to make sure our approach aligns with theirs,” Ines added.

The Centre's DRC Project Manager Chadrack R. Kanyingu with The Centre's Director of Services, EEA, Cecilia Tiblad Berntsson in Kolwezi

Looking ahead, The Hub will continue to prioritise remediation but will also explore avenues for collaboration on preventative endeavours, such as apprenticeships and decent work for young people and establishing partnerships with schools to bolster their capacity to cater to vulnerable youth. In due course, and building on collaboration with local actors, The Hub's network aspires to tackle the deep-rooted structural challenges within the industry that perpetuate the cycle of hardship. These challenges encompass low wages, subpar working conditions, few alternative income sources, restricted access to quality education, and inadequate early childhood care.  


“Companies have a responsibility and an opportunity to ensure their investment into a climate-neutral future also supports inclusive growth and positive impact for the children and communities of Kolwezi,” Cecilia said.


The Centre is also working on scaling The Hub concept to other countries, with work already underway to establish a presence in the Bangladeshi Ready-Made Garment (RMG) sector. 


To learn more about The Hub in either the DRC or Bangladesh or how you can support this initiative, please contact us.

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Published on 21/11/2023

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