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In Zimbabwe, Covid-19 lockdown spawns child labour scourge

By Tumelo Nare

The prolonged lockdown to slow down the spread of Covid-19 has pushed thousands of children into gold panning at abandoned mines across Zimbabwe, investigations have revealed.

Following the collapse of a plethora of large and medium scale gold mining companies across the country over the years, artisanal and small scale miners have taken over the mine shafts for survival.

The artisanal miners include former mine workers that are struggling for survival after the sudden loss of income and now school going children are joining the gold rush.

According to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, an estimated 1.5 million Zimbabweans have turned into artisanal mining as a safety net because of the economic problems worsened by the Covid-19 lockdown that began at the end of March.

Investigations by CITE in the rich gold mining area of Mazowe in Mashonaland Central showed that child labour has become rife in the abandoned mines.

At Mazowe Gold Mine, which was formerly owned by South African mining magnate Mzi Khumalo’s Metallon Gold, children selling water and food to mine workers have become a common sight.

“Our father passed away two years ago and my mother is a general hand at the mine, but she last got a salary two months ago,” said Sarudzai Phiri (13), who was selling food to mine employees during lunch hour.

“My mother prepares the food every morning and I just have to reheat it and bring it here for sale during lunch,” she added.

“The money I make here goes a long in paying school fees for my siblings and also to buy essentials at home.”

Forced to abandon school 

Phiri, who has since dropped out of school, is among a host of children at Mazowe Gold Mine, who have been forced to abandon school and find means to complement their parents’ income, which has been compromised by the Covid-19 lockdown.

An investigation of abandoned large scale and medium sized mines across the country by the Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association (Zela) at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown between September and October flagged Mazowe Gold Mine as one of the hotspots for child labour.

“The Covid-19 induced lockdown saw a definite increase of children in the mining areas doing minimal jobs and selling water and food to the mine workers,” Zela says in a report titled State of Closed Large and Small-Scale Mines and their Relationship with Artisanal Mining.

Zela says its investigations showed that there has been an upsurge in  artisanal mining across the country involving children and the lawyers warned that this could affect Zimbabwe’s gold exports.

“During the mine visits, it was observed that there has been an increase in the number of formalised artisanal small-scale miners into cooperatives, which in turn entered into mining agreements to mine on land belonging to closed mining companies, and this is being done through tributary agreements,” the report says.

“At some closed mine sites, illegal artisanal mining operations are taking place and in some cases such operations involve child participation in mining especially during the height of Covid-19 lockdown and the school closure period.

“This has negative implications on the artisanal and small-scale mining value chain. 

“Sourcing gold from mines operated by children affects the marketing of the mineral.”

Children at mine of death 

At Ran Mine in Bindura where about 30  artisanal miners were buried underground in November last month after a shaft collapsed, Zela discovered that child labour was rampant.

“In the mining community, child labour has increased since the lockdown with many children getting involved to try and earn income for their families,” the report added.

“There are many cases of ‘commercial sex work’ within the residential area, though this discussion is spoken about in hushed tones.”

Zela discovered that child labour had reached alarming levels at a gold mining area known as Bonza in Shurugwi where young girls are also being lured into prostitution.

Children and sex work

Prostitution by  primary school going children is said to be to be rife at milling sites and at mining claims where artisanal miners are scouring for gold.

The Zela report says: “What shocked the Zela team most was that the area is referred to as “kuma Grade 7”, other one as “kuma Form 1”.

“The names are said to have been given to those areas based on the age groups of girls that ‘entertain’ miners through commercial sex work.

“The girls are very young.

According to the miners, the girls would provide what is called Serengeti services or sexual performances to the miners in exchange for money.

“As part of the crude banter in such artisanal mining sites, some of the miners were saying “Grade 7s” are now few, since most of them have graduated to Form 1s.”

“The miners indicated that these girls belong to the miners in the area and they have romantic relationships with them such that if anyone else enters into relationships with the girls fights would erupt over the girls, unless if such relationships are done with the knowledge of the miners responsible for the girls,” the report added.

“This shows an element of control of the girls by the miners.

“However, most of the girls also participate in lightweight mining operations, but mostly gold processing using mercury.

“A few resort to other processes in the mining value chain.”

Zela recommended that civil society groups must support the girl child and the youth to conduct mine visits or roll out youth and child support programmes in mining communities to curb incidences of child labour.

Child labour hotpots 

Wellington Takavarasha, the Zimbabwe Miners Federation chief executive officer, said the prolonged closure of schools saw a number of children in provinces such as Midlands, Matabeleland South and North where poverty levels are more pronounced, turning into gold panning.

Takavarasha said the only way to tackle child labour in small scale mining operations was to formalise artisanal mining activities.

“Whilst we try to condemn those issues, we also need the government to formalise artisanal small scale miners,” he said.

“The moment you formalise you are trying to restrict the employment of children in the mining sector.

“Let’s formalise and bring these people into the mainstream economy.

“When you don’t bring them into the mainstream economy, whoever is an adult will try to control the activities of the underage in the mining sector.”

A growing problem 

Farai Maguwu, Centre for Natural Resources Governance executive director, said child labour in Zimbabwe’s informal mining sector was a growing problem.

Maguwu said most children were forced to find work in the informal mining areas by economic hardships.

“Child labour, especially where it results in children abandoning school altogether, affects the natural and physical development of a child,” he said.

“It is not possible to address child labour without attending to the push factors – economic collapse and the comatose educational system.

“Government must prove to youngsters that a well educated person has greater chances finding a decent job and fullfil their dreams.

“A situation where teachers and the entire civil service earn a pittance is a major driver of child labour in the mining sector.”

Worst forms of child labour 

According to the United States’ Bureau of International Labour Affairs, Zimbabwean “children engage in the worst forms of child labour, including in commercial sex exploitation, mining and tobacco production.”

“Law enforcement agencies lack resources to enforce child labour laws,” the department says in its 2019 global report on human trafficking.

“In addition, gaps remain in the country’s legal framework against child labour, including the lack of free basic education, which increases children’s vulnerability to child labour.” 

Last year, the US Customs and Border Protection department banned the importation of rough diamonds from Zimbabwe, saying they were produced with forced labour.

The government denied accusations that people, including children, were forced to work in alluvial diamond fields in the eastern part of the country.

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