In writing about the horrors of child labor internationally, I frequently get people telling me that “these people are poor and all banning child labor does is take income away from families where children are working.” Other than this effectively repeating the arguments of the National Association of Manufacturers and sweatshop owners of a century ago, it also ignores that people in these nations would often like their children to be in school with adults making enough money to make this possible. This was the position of labor unions and reformers a century ago in the United States and it often is today. Unfortunately, so many of these debates, such as they are given that most Americans couldn’t care less about child laborers overseas, don’t actually incorporate the voices of the global poor. But the thing about the global poor today is that a lot of them have cell phone access. So a Denver firm starting texting Congolese miners about child labor and gauged the workers about it. The findings are powerful.
While the survey was limited and did not reach the level of a representative sampling, it does appear to provide additional evidence of widespread safety hazards in mines. GeoPoll hopes to do more polling in the future as a way for companies to learn more about the workers in the farthest reaches of their supply chains.
Among the findings:
93 miners (58 percent) said they had seen children working in mines.
95 miners (60 percent) said they had seen a child hurt working in the mines.
87 miners (55 percent) said they had been a death in the mines.
54 miners (64 percent) who reported seeing accidents said the most common cause was a mine cave-in.
84 miners (53 percent) said there was no safety equipment.
Nearly half of the respondents said they worked in artisanal mines, where digging is done by hand, often in the most risky circumstances.
Most worked in diamond or gold mines, followed by tin and copper. Only a few worked in cobalt mines, but the poll results showed how problems are prevalent no matter the mineral.
The miners were also asked to answer the question, “What do you think should be done to make sure children don’t have to work in the mines?”
The answers showed how the problem of child labor is not just one of regulation – after all, child labor is illegal in the Congo. The problem is poverty. Among the most common answers from miners included guaranteeing access to free education – many children in Congo pay school fees – and providing parents a living wage.
As one miner explained via text message, “Free education, work and living wage for parents. Mining is dangerous for children.”
And yes, this is not the final word on this issue because of the natural limitations of such surveys. But we need to act on this information by demanding that American companies to not use child labor in their supply chains. While good governance in the Congo is necessary to provide education funding, for example, we know that’s highly unlikely in reality. Therefore, it makes the most sense to pressure western corporations to ensure that they are not using child labor in their supply chains or in their mines and to pay a little more for their products to make sure that adults are doing the work. That’s at least an important first step to take globally to ensure that these people live dignified lives.