In the shafts of death the untold story of child miners

By William Milasi

Two dead bodies and five people who were critically injured were retrieved from the debris of the collapsed mine shaft at Globe and Phoenix Mine, with fears that 20 more could still have been trapped underground on a cloudy February morning.

For Bekhitemba Nkomo each passing minute brought anxiety for the 16-year-old of the rescue of his three cousins who were still trapped underground.

He never anticipated that his sojourn in Zimbabwe’s city of gold Kwekwe in search of the precious-yellow metal from Silobela 7 months ago was going to bring such misery.

Nkomo was part of the mining syndicate which was prospecting for the yellow nugget at the disused mining shaft.

Government in 2015 condemned the mine after it failed to meet standard requirements from the environmental watchdog the Environmental Management Agency.

With Zimbabwe’s deepening economic challenges children as young  as Nkomo and some even younger have found themselves prospecting in dangerous gold mines.

Nkomo was introduced to artisanal mining by his cousin Mlungisi when he was in Form three at a local high school in Silobela.

Challenges associated with prospecting for gold at Peace Mine in Silobela were nothing compared to problems at home-an-ailing grandmother and two younger siblings-who are relying on him.

“I first came to Kwekwe with my cousins and we were prospecting at Gaika Mine. The mine was however sealed by soldiers and we ended up here at Globe and Phoenix mine,” he said.

The usual turf wars at the mining pits are not a deterrent for the young miner.

“The job is hard, death is always lurking but there is nothing we can do we need to survive,” Nkomo said.

The struggle continues whether he find his cousins or not, “there is no going back, this is the only survival.”

Nkomo’s struggle is the struggle of most child miners in Zimbabwe. 

Tapfuma Chigora 17 from Kadoma said he had to drop out of school after his parents failed to pay school fees for him.

The only viable option Chigora said was to turn to gold prospecting.

“I was left with no choice but to turn to gold mining. We meet serious challenges in the mining pits. A lot of things happen underground but we need to keep on going. For one to work and withstand challenges must be intoxicated, it’s not easy underground. I have seen my friends dying, some are now crippled due to gold wars,” said Chigora who operates in mines around Battlefields. 

“Child labour is rampant in the mining industry in Zimbabwe especially in the small scale-mining. Most youngsters are working illegally, and some are engaged in syndicates,” Justice Chinhema the Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Diamond and Allied Workers Union (ZIDAMWU) said before adding that child labour is serious problem in the mining sector.

Chinhema further added that children are often exposed to gangsterism as they join groups that in most cases resort to violent turf wars.

Chinhamo said an estimated 12 000 children are working in Zimbabwe’s pits.

“We have about 60 000 people working in the small-scale mines and out of this number 20% are child laborers,” he said.

In addition to occupational hazards associated with artisanal mining, the Children, are school dropouts-he added.

“The most affected districts are Kwekwe, Shurugwi, Mberengwa and Filabusi,” Chinhema said.

Small scale and artisanal miner representative said most miners do not employ children.

“We don’t seem to have miners employing child labourers. Most young people you find in the field will be working on their own mostly with metal detectors or scrounging along the river system. 

“We insist on our membership to always put their employees in the register so by that system one can always pick an underage since there is need of a national identity number.

“Most children in mining are working on their own accord and mostly on state land and disused mines where no one calls the shots,” ZMF Chairperson Makumba Nyenje said.

Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (Artuz) president Obert Masaraure bemoaned the school dropout challenges being faced in most mining communities.

“The problem of children dropping out of school is a serious problem in mining communities. The situation has been worsened by the economic challenges currently being faced in the country,” Masaraure said.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions Secretary General Japhet Moyo said child labour is proving an eyesore.

“While child labour is prevailing in many sectors of our economy like farming, commerce, prostitution in mining it is rampant though there is no reliable statistical evidence yet

“The dire economic situation in the country has its first casualties the children and other vulnerable groups like women, people living with disabilities and youths.

“Even in the absence of statistical evidence there is an assumption that children are exposed to exploitation because of their vulnerability especially that mining has been informalised for the past 20 years and artisanal mining is household owned then children can be part of the family establishments involved in family mining activities,” he said.

Moyo added that it is difficult to conduct a study into child labour.

“The toxic environment that has spilled into our economic activities makes surveys and studies difficult nowadays to undertake. It is challenging to undertake study in informal activities without being harassed and bureaucracy makes data collection in certain areas impossible,” he said.

A 2018 Human Rights Watch survey in the gold mining areas found that children are mostly hired as transporters by gold miners to carry ore in sacks and to pan for gold.

Though government has established institutional mechanisms for the enforcement of laws and regulations on child labour, there are gaps.

Efforts to get a comment from government had proved fruitless by the time of going to press.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) noted that gold mining as extremely dangerous work for children yet today tens of thousands are found in the small-scale gold mines in Africa, Asia and South America.

 According to the ILO a child who spends at least one hour per week on any economic activity is taken to be in economic labour.

According to the 2014 Labour Force and Child Labour Survey

“The Highest percentage (55, 05%) of the children in child labour lived in households where the head earned between $1 and US$100 per month”

The survey further reviewed that three quarters of children were working in order to assist in the household enterprise while 13, 9% were working to supplement household income.

Mbizo Member of Parliament Settlement Chikwinya said Children who are under 18 years of age are working in some dangerous mines.

“Mines such as Globe and Phoenix have some children under the age of 18 years working there.  “The prevalence of gold in the Midlands and its easy access coupled with harsh economic conditions that forces the children to supplement food for their unemployed parents provide a push and pull factors that takes these children to mining activities,” he said.

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