Editor's Note: This story is part of GlobalPost Special Reports' continuing coverage of labor rights around the world.
KOLWEZI, Congo — One day while he was watching TV, farmer Emmanuel Tshiteta saw a news segment about people digging.
With shovels and picks, they forged deep holes, then packed the rocks they uncovered into plastic mesh bags. They carried the bags to a river to wash away the dirt, revealing handfuls of aqua-colored ore. The next day, they sold it for quick cash.
Tshiteta reflected on the small plot of land he farmed on. His corn required constant work, and droughts or floods could ruin the crop altogether. Even if all went as well, he'd have to wait months for harvest time to finally have some cash.
He decided to put down his hoe and pick up a shovel. “Farming takes a long time, but mining is quick business,” he explains.
And in Congo, there is no shortage of minerals to be had. In 2010, Congo had 47 percent of the world's cobalt reserves and 51 percent of its production. It also has significant quantities of diamonds, copper, tin and other base minerals, according to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.
When the value of these increased along with a worldwide demand for electronics and other goods in the mid 2000s, dozens of small companies opened shop in Congo's mineral-rich Katanga province to purchase and process ore dug by artisanal miners. People in eastern and southern Congo like Tshiteta gave up their farms and began digging holes.
A 2008 study by Promines, an international non-profit, estimated that there are 450,000 to 500,000 people working as artisanal miners in Congo's four largest mining provinces. The same study speculated that 40 percent of Congo's artisanal miners are children, although observations from GlobalPost visits to mining sites in the region would put it closer to 20 percent.
Today, artisanal mining — also known as 'subsistence mining' or 'independent mining' — is believed to be the nation's single largest sector of employment. It is the way an estimated 7 to 14 percent of the Congolese work-age population earns a living. But it is also notorious for employing those who perhaps shouldn't be.
Patrick Bwana strains his body as he thrusts a full-sized shovel into a patch of rocky ground. He is 12 years old. He looks 9. He speaks with his eyes fixed on the ground. “I used to go to school, but my father died, and no one paid for my studies anymore,” he says.
Bwana works from around 6 in the morning to about 3 in the afternoon, lugging around bags of rock that seem to weigh as much as he does. He says he can earn $5,000 francs a day doing this. That's about $5. He hopes he can save enough to pay his own school fees, and return to school.
Bwana is one of tens of thousands of child laborers estimated to work in Congo's mineral sector. Most take to the work out of necessity, to help their parents earn enough to feed their family. Child labor is illegal in the Congo, as is much of the artisanal mining that takes place in and around Kolwezi on mineral reserves owned or leased by foreign or Congolese companies. Be it for lack of will or lack of means, Congolese authorities rarely take action against the practice.
The forces that shape Congo's artisanal mining sector are many: A worldwide demand for copper and other base minerals for manufacturing; the inability of many Congolese to find any other sort of lucrative work; the absence of government regulation. But ask any Kolwezi miner who's responsible, and you're likely to hear just one answer:
One Saturday morning, Tshiteta walks down a dirt street in the industrial city of Kolwezi. All around him, teams of two or three people push bicycles laden with bags of rocks toward the dozens of Chinese-owned "depots" that line the street.
Inside every depot is a Congolese manager or buyer who presents himself as the face of the company. But behind him one can usually find Chinese fiddling about, directing the process. Men employed by the Chinese buyers test ore samples, then negotiate with the miners.
Tshiteta says he earns maybe 50,000 francs — about $55 US — per week selling his load of rocks here every Saturday.
Behind the depots is a riverbed where hundreds of men, women and children wash rock. Musoni Kasongo, 13, splashes around in sandals, scavenging for discarded bags that miners use to transport the rocks. Depending on how worn out a bag is, he'll resell it for 50 or 100 francs (5 or 10 cents). He's done this since he was 11, going to school during the week then scavenging for bags on the weekends.
Washing in the river nearby is 39-year-old Kayenda, a mother of 10 whose husband works for an Indian mining company, SAM metals. She washes rock here everyday so she can pay for all of her children to attend school. All of the school-age ones do, except for one. Her oldest son, now 20, found a job buying minerals for a Chinese depot here, so he dropped out.
Kayenda reflects on the Chinese-dominated minerals market here.
“The way they are helping is giving jobs, but also they are stealing from us,” she says.
Hers is a common sentiment among the miners of Kolwezi. Most say they're grateful to the Chinese for providing any work at all, but resent that Chinese are getting rich off of their hard work, and their nation's minerals.
Adding to that resentment is the commonly held suspicion that Chinese depot owners lie about how much diggers' rocks are actually worth. The amount a miner makes depends upon the percentage of copper or cobalt in his rocks. Posted on the metal gate to each depot is a list of prices per ton based upon that percentage. At one depot, rock with 4 percent cobalt sells for $10,000 francs ($11 US) per ton. Ore with 5 percent cobalt sells for $50,000 francs ($55 US), and so on, up to 25 percent.
Many say the Chinese-owned depots understate the true percentage of mineral in the rock in order to pay them less money. One truck driver who has worked for three years for the largest of the Chinese companies, Congo Dong Bang Mining (CDM), says it’s true.
Like several Congolese men who are employed by the Chinese depots, Mathieu Kapepa, 27, says the Chinese pay their employees much less than other foreign companies that work in Congo's mineral sector. He says he earned $450 a month as a driver for KCC, the British/Swiss company whose security guard stands accused of killing a miner. But Kapepa was laid off from that company, and he now earns just $300 a month driving for CDM.
As a driver, Kapepa's task is to get the ore out of Kolweizi. Each day, he drives a dump truck filled with 50 tons of the stuff to a warehouse 15km south of town. From there, it will head toward Lubumbashi, Congo's smelting city, where it will be melted down to extract concentrated copper the world market and particularly the Chinese so desire.
In 2009, a team of researchers from Rights & Accountability in Development (RAID) published a report that surveyed 15 percent of the Chinese-owned companies in Congo's southern Katanga province. It found that few Chinese companies were even familiar with Congolese labor law, and that violations of it were commonplace.
“China considers itself ‘the largest developing country in the world’ but Chinese civil society does not believe that this should prevent action being taken now to promote higher standards of behavior by its companies,” the report concluded.
The report found that workers frequently sustain injuries in Chinese-owned smelting plants, and that they are rarely compensated well if at all for their medical costs. Much of the ore that Chinese companies purchase is illegally mined, some of by children as young as 10, according to the report. Workers in smelting plants are exposed to toxic dust, and often work without protective gear.
China sees Africa as both a place to obtain the raw materials needed to fuel its manufacturing-driven economy, and as an important emerging market in which to sell its products.
Even before China's ruling party announced its “Go Out” policy in 1999 to encourage Chinese businesses to invest overseas, Chinese entrepreneurs were doing just that. Thousands immigrated to Africa. In developing countries such as the Congo, Chinese families opened import businesses, electronic shops, medicine distribution networks and restaurants. Since then, Chinese annual trade with Africa has blossomed to $198 billion, making it Africa's largest bilateral trading partner.
In spite of miners' complaints about working for or selling to the Chinese, for many in Congo's southern and eastern provinces, there is no alternative.
“It’s because there are no jobs. If there were (other) jobs I wouldn’t do this,” says a man digging with a shovel on state-owned land, who gives his name as Frederic. “But it is better having little instead of staying home and do nothing.”
This article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.