Hard Labour for Congolese Kids

Poverty forces thousands of children into taking on exhausting and dangerous work.

Hard Labour for Congolese Kids

Poverty forces thousands of children into taking on exhausting and dangerous work.

Friday, 29 October, 2010

Apollinaire, not his real name, is just 13, but spends long hours on a construction site, mixing cement and shifting big stones that his slight frame can barely carry.

He is an assistant mason, a job that, according to Congolese law, should not be undertaken by anyone younger than 18.

Congolese law prohibits children below the age of 14 from doing any sort of work, while those under 18 cannot carry out any heavy labour.

The construction site where Apollinaire works is a noisy, dusty place in central Goma. He started working there in 2007, a few months after he turned ten.

Since then, he has been in and out of school, trying to get an education where he can. But for the last few months, he has not attended a single class - although he did enrol at the start of the school year.

Apollinaire feels he will never be able to catch up on the education he’s missed, and now wants to concentrate on becoming a mason.

Although illegal, thousands of children under 18 take on heavy work in order to scrape together enough money for their families to survive.

Apollinaire’s boss says he knows the law well, but argues that employing the boy to help him earn a living is better than leaving him to wander Goma’s streets.

“I am not happy to use children in this kind of work, but when Apollinaire tells me his misery I think I must help him,” he said. “That’s why I asked him to carry light stones. The work that I give him helps him to get shoes, hygiene products. I advise him to always give the money to his mother at home, to buy beans for example.”

But there is also a cost-saving for employers who choose to use child labour. The usual rate for a mason is five US dollars per day, but Apollinaire only receives half this amount, because, according to his boss, he tires faster.

“Since independence, we have functioned on a system called ‘make-do’,” Dufina Tabu from the Association of Volunteers, ASVOCO, a Goma-based NGO, said. “Therefore when the parents have no salary, and it is difficult to provide for their children, the children make do with what they have and take care of themselves. It is easy for anyone to exploit them.”

Apollinaire is the second of six children. His parents are now divorced and he lives with his mother who has difficulty providing for the family.

Knowing that heavy work is illegal for children, Apollinaire’s mother was reluctant to admit that her son works on a construction site.

“Among [my six children] the two eldest work,” she said. “The rest of them are small children. Apollinaire helps by taking care of them at home. Sometimes, he comes home with a bit of money but I don’t ask questions.”

Although it is the parents’ responsibility to protect their children and provide for them, the hardships they have to face make it difficult for someone like Apollinaire’s mother.

The Children’s Parliament of North Kivu, a initiative set up by the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF to give youngsters more of a voice in the region, says that the Congolese government should do more to stop workplace exploitation of minors.

“Today there are children who have to work in difficult conditions because their families are helpless,” Junior Museke, a representative of the parliament, said. “This is a case where the state must take action. It must put in place relay solutions (where the state takes over responsibility from parents) to protect the children.”

Interviewed by IWPR, Tsongo Kataka, director of a regional organisation dedicated to the protection of women and children, explained that the body tries “to raise awareness within families and the population, but that [they] have limited means”.

Apollinaire often gets injured at work and comes home exhausted. There is no time to play or have fun like other children his age, he confides.

“I am a mason. I pick up and move stones and sand. The work that I do is painful and difficult. Sometime stones fall on me and I hurt myself. Once I was seriously injured on the foot and the arm and I was taken to the hospital,” he said.

Melanie Gouby is an IWPR reporter. Passy Mubalama and Desanges Kihuha are IWPR-trained reporters in Goma.

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