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Education key to ending child labor in Sri Lanka’s gem mines

Children as young as age 10 work in hazardous conditions

<p>Workers at a gem mine in Ratnapura (photo by Nuwan Weerapperuma)</p>

Workers at a gem mine in Ratnapura (photo by Nuwan Weerapperuma)

  • ucanews.com reporters, Ratnapura
  • Sri Lanka
  • October 18, 2013
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Fourteen-year-old Priyantha Ranasinghe wakes each morning at 4am, dresses in darkness and then travels 20 kilometers in a lorry packed with other workers to a gem mine in Ratnapura. There he spends the next 12 hours engaged in grueling work, hauling chunks of red earth up from an open mineshaft.

“I feel very tired every evening, but I have to look after my paralyzed father and two sisters,” said Ranasinghe. “If I do not work in the gem mines, my family will starve.”

Ranasinghe, who says he earns 400 rupees (about US$4) per day, was recruited by a neighbor at age 12 to work in the gem mines after he failed to pass his primary school exams. Since that time, he has journeyed from one mine to the next, seeking work wherever he can find it.

Conditions in the mines, where children sometimes work as deep as 10-15 meters underground in unstable shafts, are fraught with peril.

“Collapsing of mines, poisonous gases inside mines, disruption of education, [and] malnutrition” are chief among the risks faced by children working in Ratnapura, said DA Walikala, secretary of the Democracy and Human Rights Organization in Ratnapura.

Last month four people were allegedly hospitalized when poisonous gas from an abandoned mine seeped into an active mineshaft, workers in Ratnapura said.

Despite his determination to provide for his family, Ranasinghe too has found that he is not immune to the dangers of the mines, where respiratory illnesses are also common. He says he now suffers from a persistent cough and fears that the condition might be permanent. 

Child labor of any kind is illegal in Sri Lanka and the country is a signatory to the International Labour Organizations’ (ILO) Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour and ILO Convention 138 on the Minimum Age of Employment. But despite these laws, there are more than 60,000 children participating in hazardous forms of child labor in Sri Lanka, according to a tweet last week by Unicef Sri Lanka.

Hundreds of children, some as young as age 10, work in the Ratnapura sapphire and ruby mines, according to Walikala.

“Mostly children hailing from poverty-ridden families who do not have any means of sufficient income” end up falling prey to working in the mines, said Walikala.

Part of the problem, he added, is that these children have been allowed to drop out of school. Programs need to be established to “further their education”, he said.

“The level of education in [Ratnapura] district is not up to the standard, plus the motivation for education is lacking,” said Shyama Salgadu, an ILO senior program officer working in Ratnapura.

“Compulsory education” for children under age 18 should be strictly enforced by the government, said Chandrapala Kumarage, Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka.

Without adequate incentives to return to school – either from the government or civil society groups – the hundreds of children “slaving in the mines” are likely to remain there, he said.

Items such as exercise books, writing utensils, shoes and school uniforms would go a long way toward encouraging children to stay in school, he said.

“These are poverty-ridden girls and boys who do not have any means of getting these [items from] their parents,” he said. “If we have a genuine desire to give them [an] education, we must start from there."

Both the government and ILO say that it is their goal to make Ratnapura a child labor-free zone by 2016.

“[These children] are doing very risky jobs," said Salgadu, adding that until recently there had been “no coordinated effort” to improve the situation.

However, the government claims that it is now beginning to address some of the problems.

“We conducted many programs in the estate sector in Ratnapura District [in locations where there are mines] and got children back to school by providing them [with] books, school bags, shoes, text books and other necessary equipment,” said Child Development and Women's Affairs Minister Tissa Karaliyadda.

“We had to educate the parents first,” he said, because in “most cases” it is the parents who are responsible for pressuring their children to work in the mines.

According to the Sri Lanka Gem & Jewelry Association, there are about 40,000 gem mines being operated annually which provide jobs to some 150,000 low-income individuals. The association also estimates that the export of gemstones from Sri Lanka generated about US$12.5 million in revenue in 2012.

Karaliyadda said the government, in cooperation with the ILO, is preparing to launch a survey to determine the exact number of children working in the country's gem mines. The government has also opened a hotline to receive complaints about child labor.

Individuals found guilty of exploiting child labor could face a fine of 100,000 rupees and one year imprisonment, or both, and could be forced to pay compensation to the victimized children, according to the Child Development and Women's Affairs Ministry

“If anyone [is] found guilty, stern action will be taken,” said Karaliyadda.

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