ZAMBIA: A 'crushing' life for children forced to work


LUSAKA, 24 Apr 2006 (IRIN) - Zambia is a signatory to several international agreements banning child labour, yet children can be found working alongside their parents in roadside businesses throughout the country.

A particular area of concern are the informal stone crushing and sand quarrying sites which mushroom in every town where construction is underway. The dangerous and backbreaking work 'involves children of all ages, both boys and girls', explained Birgitte Poulsen, spokeswoman for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Zambia.

The job is the monotonous reduction of big stones into small ones for the building industry. With just picks, hammers and old car tyres - set alight to heat the stones and help crack them - it takes about a week to make a 10 mt mound of gravel. Besides losing out on schooling, children working in the quarry sites are exposed to hazards such as 'injuries from heavy tools, inhaling of dust ... and damage to eyes and skin from flying chips of stones', said Poulsen.

Justine Mukosa, spokesman for the Environmental Council of Zambia (ECZ), a quasi-government watchdog, said that children aged as young as five were being forced to work to help support their families. The last ILO child labour survey in Zambia in 1999 showed that more than 500,000 children aged between five and 17 years had worked in the past 12 months, out of a national population of around 12 million.

John Mwaba, aged 13, is among several thousand Zambian children who have dropped out of school to help support their families. Like most stone crushers, Mwaba begins his gruelling 12-hour work day at 6 a.m. He has been in the business for three years following the death of his father in a road accident.

'I had to make a choice between school and survival because none of my father's relatives was willing to share the burden with us,' he explained. He works alongside his mother, and both wish they had other options than bashing rocks all day.

For every 10 mt of gravel they make, the Mwabas earn US $60. But when the cost of the raw materials are subtracted, their monthly profit is just $70, which hardly covers food and rent.

And then there is the problem of theft. The gravel and sand produced each day has to be left overnight - an easy target for a thief with a vehicle and a shovel. When that happens, 'we go hungry' said John, their only option is to start again.

The Mwabas quarry without a license, ignoring the Environmental and Pollution Control Act designed to protect Zambia's fragile ecology. According to Mukosa of the ECZ, the regulations are rarely applied, and illegal quarrying - like charcoal making - is yet another environmentally destructive response to poverty.

Copper-rich Zambia was a success story in the 1970s, but a long slide in commodity prices derailed the economy. In the 1990s poverty deepened as the government slashed state spending on social services to balance its books, and pursued free-wheeling privatisation that led to huge job losses. Zambia is now lower placed on the human development index (HDI) than at independence.

Over 70 percent of Zambians work in the 'informal economy' in unprotected working conditions, according to the UK-based NGO War on Want. Josephine Mapoma, permanent secretary in the ministry of labour, told IRIN the government was planning to review its laws to strengthen anti-child labour policies and implement programmes to raise awareness and reintegrate affected children into society.