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The United States department of labour has added gold to the list of goods produced with child labour or forced labour in Zimbabwe while noting that the country has made little progress in ending the worst forms of child labour.

A report, released last week, notes that children are working at artisanal and small-scale gold mining sites where they face risks, including collapsed mines and exposure to mercury, and in commercial sexual exploitation around mining areas.

“In some cases, armed criminal groups have lured children to mining sites with the promise of self-employment and then forced them to mine gold under the threat of physical harm or death,” the report notes. The deteriorating economic conditions in the country is moreover exposing children to trafficking. “Zimbabwean children living in border towns are trafficked to South Africa, Mozambique, and Zambia, where they become victims of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour in domestic work.”

According to the report, some families lure rural children, especially orphans, to work in cities with promises of education or adoption. “Such children are subjected to domestic service or are forced to work in mining. Girls, as young as 11, are subjected to commercial sexual exploitation, particularly along major transit corridors and in mining areas.”

Child labour in Zimbabwe has previously been rife in only the sugar cane and tobacco growing areas where children are used in the production and harvesting of crops. Children aged 8 to 17 perform work such as planting, weeding, harvesting, packing and grading of tobacco on farms, tasks that often expose them to toxic chemicals and the effects of nicotine from handling tobacco leaves. Children also work on sugar plantations in the southeastern part of the country, where they wield dangerous tools and endure high temperatures.

A protester holding a poster against child labour in mining during the 2018 Alternative Mining Indaba in Cape Town. Archive photo by Mzi Velapi

The report notes that the continued exploitation of children is despite the launch, by the Zimbabwean government together with the United Nations, of an updated Sustainable Development Cooperation Assistance Framework that prioritises increased educational access and social protections for girls and other groups vulnerable to child labour. The national assembly is also considering amendments to the Labour Act, which would increase penalties for child labour violations.

The report notes gaps in the country’s legal framework against child labour, including the prohibition of commercial sexual exploitation of children. “The government did not publicly release information on its labour and criminal law enforcement efforts for inclusion in this report, and law enforcement agencies lack resources to enforce child labour laws.”

More than failing to report on its efforts to combat child labour, the Zimbabwean government is reported as actively covering it up. “Zimbabwe is assessed as having made only minimal advancement because it implemented a practice that delays advancement to eliminate child labour. Evidenced by a pattern of threats and intimidation of worker organizations and trade unionists, high-level officials within the Government of Zimbabwe and the ruling political party interfered with a delegation representing worker and civil society organizations to investigate concerns of child labour occurring at a commercial farm, sending party activists to the farm to threaten and intimidate the delegation,” the report notes.

Wellington Takavarasha of the Zimbabwe Mining Federation said while it is true that there is child labour in the gold mining sector, it was not as pronounced. “We can’t really say there is child labour. What is happening is if you go to places like Matabeleland North where there are areas with sites with gold mining activities even at family homes – places like Shamva – you find the whole family will be panning for gold.

“That can be child labour, but because of the economic meltdown which has resulted in children dropping out of school, they go as a family to pan for gold. But when you go to places like Kwekwe and  Shurugwi they form syndicates comprising of boys as young as 13 so it becomes a child labour issue but they know they can’t work with older people because they will stop them. So they work on their own as a syndicate and they look for one bully who becomes the ring leader to protect them,” he said.

Takavarasha said, however, that they were working with the International Labour Organisation to see how best to address the problem.