Insight

How quarries exploit children for survival (1)

To access quarries where children work is tough. Entrance, however, shows shocking revelations. The old order, where children were used for exploitative labour by traffickers, has given way to a new order. Parents are now at the top of the system, using their children as supplementary breadwinners, reports JULIANA FRANCIS

Ihube Quarry in Imo State

Three-year-old Chimaobi handled his tool expertly. The tool was the detached prong of a rake. He used it to sift stones from sand, after which he filled a plastic bowl with the stones, carried and dumped them on a growing heap. There were two other heaps of stones beside his.

Those belonged to his sisters; seven-year-old Chinedu and Chidinma (10). Although Chimaobi looks like a five-year-old boy, his father, Sopuruchi, insisted he was three years old. He and his sisters have been in the gravel pit with their father since 6am and would leave by 5pm. They were armed with food and water.

The scorching sun beats down ruthlessly on the children. Sopuruchi, a father of five, said the whole family was involved in the business of breaking stones as means of survival. He disclosed that his wife had to stay at home with his two other children because her pregnancy had advanced.

Asked why the children didn’t go to school, he replied that they were on a public holiday. But there was no public holiday on that fateful October 30 when our reporter visited the quarry. “Things are not in order; that is why my children are here with me. Things were not always like this; we used to live in Abuja before relocating to Imo State.

I used to sell baby items at Garki Modern Market in Abuja. I had a car and a house in Abuja. Right now, I have nothing! Nasir el- Rufai (then the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, minister) demolished my house. I later had to sell the car to make ends meet.

I would have loved to go back to my business, but I don’t have the money,” Sopuruchi said softly. He explained that when feeding the children got tougher, he went to friends and family members, who introduced him to the quarry business.

“Honestly, it’s true I’m not yet an expert in breaking these stones, but one has to start from somewhere,” said Sopuruchi. The sun at the Ihube quarry site, located in Okigwe, Imo State, seems to be harsher than in other parts of the town.

But movements through different quarries have shown that quarries are unusually hot. Mr. Emenike Nwafor, who introduced himself as the coordinator of the Ihube quarry, told the reporter she was late.

He said children were usually at the quarry between 5am and 6am. According to him, they leave before sunup. He said most underage workers, who work at the quarry, come in the morning, and then head home to prepare for school. In the evening, they return to the site.

Nwafor, like other adults at the different quarries, does not see anything wrong with children working in quarries. It was a way of life and mostly done to assist parents, he said. Nigeria has laws against child labour, but most people don’t know these laws and those who know hide behind the fact that those who ought to demand the implementation, don’t. Some of these laws are embedded in the Child’s Rights Act (CRA), the Nigerian Constitution, NAPTIP Act, Violence Against Persons Act, among others.

The CRA was signed 17 years ago, with the hope of protecting children from harmful and exploitative situations. But in 2020, Nigeria is still grappling with the issue of children embracing strenuous works to survive and support their parents and guardians.

The CRA, on Article 25, Subsection (1c), states, “a child must not be required, in any case, to lift, carry or move anything so heavy as to be likely to adversely affect the physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development of the child”. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), working in mining and quarry is among the worst forms of child labour, seeing such works as “hazardous.” ILO further argues that at least 43 per cent of Nigerian children are trapped in different kinds of child labour despite conventions banning it. Buttressing the argument, UNICEF states, “nearly one in 10 children are subjected to child labour worldwide”.

Perhaps the most disturbing discovery by this investigation is the fact that most of these children are now being used by their parents for these difficult jobs. This discovery is a drastic change from the former norm, where children, working in quarries, were lured or hired by traffickers and subjected to exploitative forced labour. An article, “Little hands of the stone quarries,” by Terre des hommes, says in 2003, over 4,000 children working in quarries in Abeokuta, Ogun State, were discovered and rescued.

The children, with many from Benin Republic, were exploited and forced to work in gravel pits scattered about the state. At least 261 children were rescued, between ages five and 17. Other rescued victims were between 18 and 20 years old.

This latter set was trafficked as children and became adults in the gravel pits. Part of their jobs was to train new victims. “In several states of Nigeria on the border with Benin, hundreds of children from six to 15 years are exploited daily in fields, plantations and gravel pits.

The physical work is intense and dangerous on hands and knees and children run a high risk of accidents. The work day is eight to 10 hours, while off-days are rare,” the article adds.

The children were the proverbial goose that laid the golden eggs for the traffickers, who handed them over to gravel pit owners or middlemen. The children usually sleep in the pits and wouldn’t see their parents for close to two or six years, states Terre des hommes. Their salaries were collected by the traffickers, who bought a bicycle for each of them after two years and sent stipends to their poor parents.

In the reality of present day Nigeria, underage workers, who work for others, disclosed that their parents are aware of the hazardous nature of the quarry work. These workers, just like in the Abeokuta gravel pit crisis of 2003, blamed their situations on poverty.

Many people have also argued that in Nigeria, children working in quarries were as old as time. But social life and the laws are changing. In Africa, especially Nigeria, children helping parents to work in order to supplement incomes are applauded and perceived as ‘good children.’ Nobody ponders on the psychological, health, social and physical damage such jobs do to these children. One of the adults at Ihube quarry said the children were just at the right age for such jobs.

He insisted it was easier for adults to suffer health issues while working in quarries, than underage workers. In the quarry world, children are not seen as children, but providers and supporters in homes.

The question that, however, tugs at the mind is: “what values can a five, 10 or 15 years old bring to their parents’ homes?” Today, the traffickers are gone, while Nigerian parents exploit their children for survival. At least 24 out of 36 states of Nigeria have adopted the CRA. This presupposes that parents of these children and their employers have run afoul of the law and there should be consequences.

A facilitator with CLEEN Foundation, Mr. Samuel Akpologun (a lawyer), said penalty for using a child for labour and for that matter, in quarries in Section 28(3) and (4) of the CRA provides that any person involved in child labour shall, upon conviction, be liable to a fine not exceeding N50,000 or imprisonment for five years or both.

The Ihube Coordinator, Nwafor, said children often end up breaking legs and hands in the course of the job. Others had to be dug out following a landslide. He added that accidents were nothing new in quarries.

According to him, children, like adults, also get injured by hammers and diggers. This investigation discovered that the quarry job has also become a vicious circle. Children, who follow parents to these quarries, grow up to accept it as a normal way of life.

Later, they take over the business of digging and breaking stones from their parents. Then they grow up, marry, have children and the circle continues. Sopuruchi said his three children help him in many ways. “Although I don’t allow them to break the stones, I only allow them to sift and carry. I have no other person to ask for help except them. I can’t break the stones and still carry them myself.

If the government can help me with money to go back to my business, my children and I wouldn’t be in this business. This quarry job is one of suffering. If I can go back to my business, my children will be able to return to school,” he said.

Nwafor contended that people work in quarry, not out of fondness for the job, but the necessity to survive. He added: “We’re all doing this job, not because we like it, but because there’s no job in Nigeria.

The land, where the quarry is sited, is community land. It belongs to the village, but we rent it before we can gain access into it. After taking the stones we need, the land reverts to its owner. It is because of the situation in Nigeria that you see children working here. This job is a difficult one.

It is because of the job that our hands are no longer like those of human beings. Look at this scar on my hand; it was caused by a digger. Injuries don’t know whether you’re a child or an adult. Anyone can be injured.” Asked how many underage workers had died at such quarries, Nwafor snorted: “It doesn’t kill, only that the child may sustain a broken hand or leg.

I have been working in quarries for over 20 years. There’s no money in it. If there is, I would have made enough to quit. I have five children and they are in primary and secondary school; eating is tough for us.

The highest profit per trip is between N1,000 and N2,000. What we mostly focus on here is money for feeding. “My children work in these quarries with me. Do you expect them to leave only me to be suffering, doing this sort of job? It is from this job we pay school fees and eat. We want the government to help us with loans or stone crushers.” Justine, 15, was sighted at the Ihube quarry.

He was busy digging and removing top sand, after which he would start digging for stones. He was not too interested in speaking with our reporter; probably because his employer, Simon Nwaokoro, was on ground. He mumbled that he was in Senior Secondary School (SS2).

“I rather do this work than steal,” Justine said. He disclosed that his parents knew he works in quarry. “My father cuts palm-kennel for people. My mum is a petty trader. We’re seven children and I’m the fifth.

I do give my parents out of the money I make working at this quarry. I started this work four years ago,” Justine added. When asked why he was the only one in his family doing that sort of work, Justine kept mum. His boss, Nwaokoro, said that if the government could provide quarry workers with crushing machines, it would eliminate the use of underage workers. He said: “Justine came to me for employment and has been with me for a month.

Yes, he is too young for this job, but there is no other way for him to make money. He is using it to fund his education.” Asked if he didn’t think Justine’s health would be affected due to the strenuous job, Nwaokoro grinned: “He is still too young for the digging or breaking of stones to affect his health. I have six other workers like him.” Asked why he preferred to employ underage boys, he replied that he employs anyone irrespective of age.

“I pay between N1,000 and N1,500, depending on the person’s output. If the government can help young people like Justine with their education and other needs, he wouldn’t need to be here; breaking stones to make ends meet.”

Lokpatan Quarry in Abia State

The story at this quarry is not different from what goes on at Ihube quarry in Imo State. According to the adults, the children work in the early hours of the day and leave before sunup. Our reporter got to the quarry pass 2pm. Izundu Okafor, who said that the quarry only makes use of teenage workers, stressed: “There are no children workers here.” He didn’t see teenagers as children. However, according to the CRA, a child is defined as, “any person under the age of 18.”

Okafor said: “Children are not too many here. What we mostly have here are teenagers and young men. We need a Hunter Cruncher Machine. We are aware that government has provided such machines for people in the North and at Abakiliki areas.”

A contractor to these sites, Mr. Nnamdi, said his job was to negotiate with building contractors and then go into the quarries with trucks to get the stones, which he moves to construction sites. He said: “I have been in this business for 16 years and in those years, I see children breaking stones in quarries. In fact, it is because school is in session that you don’t see many of them.

But after school hours, at sun down, they will return to sites. Most times, when these children come in the morning, it is not all that get employed. Those lucky to be employed, jettison school to work in the quarries for that day. Many of them raise their school fees by working in these quarries.

Some of them use it to assist their parents. “I know that some of the children get injured. They often fall and break legs or hands; they would be rushed to hospitals and when they are better, they return to the quarry. They have no alternative employment. Their parents are also suffering.

Yes, children working in quarries might not be a good idea, but it i the situation in the country that caused it. If everything is all right, these children wouldn’t be going to sites where many of them get injured.”

*To be continued

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