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A Dollar A Day: The Human Cost Of Abused Miners

In the Congo, women and children slave to unearth the rare mineral sold to high-tech firms. 

NYABIBWE, Congo — Justine Kamakura, gets up at 5 a.m. and walks about 10 miles from her village to work in a cassiterite mine in Nyabibwe in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s South Kivu province. Though the 40-year-old mother of six has been working in these mines for 11 years, she can still only afford to send one of her children to school.

Cassiterite, from which tin is extracted, is one of the four conflict minerals mined in eastern Congo. It is used around the world by tech giants and other major corporations in the manufacture of phones, medical imagery devices and televisions.

Yet working in the mines is a dangerous occupation, and one which lacks oversight.

“In politically unstable areas, the minerals trade can be used to finance armed groups, fuel forced labor and other human rights abuses, and support corruption and money laundering,” the European Commission states in its cassiterite regulatory policy.

This leads to serious consequences for the workers.

In August last year, at least 50 artisanal miners were killed after landslides caused the collapse of three gold mines in Kamituga in South Kivu province. Two years earlier, in the mine where Kamakura works, 10 artisanal miners also died after a hole collapsed.

A hole in which more than 10 artisanal miners died in 2018 due to lack of oxygen in Nyabibiwe. (Esdras Tsongo)

Managed by the Congolese government, the Kalimbi mining site in Nyabibwe village has also been accused of being mismanaged — and even illegally operated.

They are problems that have long been known about.

“Artisanal miners are working in hazardous conditions for very low pay, in mines that are often controlled by the military,” said a 2005 report from ReliefWeb. “Fighting around mining areas — for the control of lucrative mining revenues — is common.”

Little benefit to the miners

While the Congo has vast mineral wealth, many of the nation’s citizens are impoverished. Data shows that 64 percent of the world’s extremely poor live in just five countries, with Congo being one of them.

Even though Kamakura has extensive experience working in the mine, she is paid the equivalent of $1 per day (2,000 Congolese francs).

“Our bosses pay us whatever they want. They have no human feeling. Sometimes, when there is not a large production, they can pay us even 1,000 Congolese francs [about $0.50USD] per day,” Kamakura said. “I live in inhuman conditions in this mine. It’s because I don’t have another job. But I would like to leave this life in the mine.”

“I am also exposed to diseases.”

The uncrushed cassiterite in the hands of women vendors in Nyabibwe village in eastern Congo. (Esdras Tsongo)

Kamakura said that she works in a mine with 80 men and 30 women. She prepares food for her team, and does all the same work that men do, so that she will not be marginalized like many of the other women in the Kalimbi mines.

She said she was fortunate enough to study and receive a primary school certificate.

“I didn’t go to secondary school because my parents couldn’t afford to send me to school. I wanted to help myself by looking for work in the mine,” Justine said.

“Unfortunately, I found that disappointing.”

Kamakura said she carries parcels in the mine, and stands out as she can write.

“The team of chiefs can trust me to write on behalf of all the women in the mine, but unfortunately this is a danger to me because these same chiefs don’t pay me and sexually exploit me,” Kamakura said.

“I can’t refuse to have sex after weekend work with my boss, because if I don’t, he will kick me out of the mine. I have to do it so I don’t get kicked out of my job.”

While Kamakura would like to leave her mining job, she can’t afford to do so.

“I have a salary of $1 a day, and sometimes I don’t get paid. When I have been lucky enough to get paid, with this money, I just buy a small ration for the children, and this ration is not enough. We eat once a day while we work in a mining site that produces millions of dollars,” she said, crying. “It is so inhumane.”

“Let the governments really help us. I can’t stand this misery anymore.”

Barnabe, 15, separates the sand from the cassiterite with a spade in a mine in Nyabibwe. (Esdras Tsongo)

Exploitation of children 

Children are also exploited in the Congo mines.

Barnabe Mushamalirwa, 15, has been working in the cassiterite mines since he was 10 years old. His parents also work in the Nyabibwe mine.

Like Justine, he is paid $1 a day, and his family lives in impoverished conditions.

“Life is not easy in the mines. Sometimes we lose our friends who want to go and work in deep holes. They die there,” Barnabe said. “We work here, but it’s too dangerous. My friends are dead and the people in charge of the mine forbid us to inform.”

“I know it’s difficult, but I have to do it because my parents didn’t forbid me, and then they don’t have money to pay for my studies,” Barnabe said.

For many children in the mines, there is little choice but to work, even if it is illegal.

“While children under 18 cannot legally work in [Congo’s] mines, the law is often ignored for a variety of economic and social reasons,” said a 2018 report by the group Pact, an international development nonprofit. “Many children start working in mines at a very young age, often accompanying their parents.”

“Over time, families with limited income and economic opportunities come to depend on the money their children earn to cover basic necessities,” it said.

In the end, though, the exploitation of women and children in the mines in the Congo is an issue driven by local poverty and global demand for the product being extracted.

“We all need to continue to expose human rights abuses in the mining sector in Congo, and it’s distressing that this is continuing,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, the executive director of the United Kingdom-based human rights charity RAID.

The organization works to expose corporate wrongdoing, environmental damage and rights abuses, and to hold companies taking advantage of such abuses to account.

Van Woudenberg said the issues surrounding exploitation in the Congo’s mine would not be going away on their own, with the impoverished country’s cassiterite and cobalt seeing ever-increasing demand for use in rechargeable batteries in electric vehicles.

“Corruption has been a key feature of the mining sector in Congo, enriching the few and impoverishing the many,” Van Woudenberg said.

“This needs to end if Congo’s wealth is to benefit its people.”

(Edited by Judith Isacoff and Carlin Becker)

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