SNEZHNY, Ukraine - Alexey is 14 years old. He lives in Snezhny, a small town in Eastern Ukraine. His mother has been unemployed for a few years now. Since her husband died, they live on a widow's pension of 60 hryvna (about 12 US dollars). Finding a job is a problem here, and even those who work do not receive their wage in time. At home, Alexey does not even have bread sometimes, and after religious holidays he passes by the local cemetery to collect sweets left on graveyards.
Alexey's family situation is typical for the Donbass mining district in Ukraine. Half of the money loosing mines have been closed down. Wages have dropped dramatically, and often miners are not paid at all. In an area where all houses are heated with coal, miners even had to accept that there was no more coal supply for themselves.
If there were no kopankas, or illegal mines, who knows how those people would have survived. An illegal miner can earn around 6 US dollars per day. The geological conditions of the region - where coal can be found at a depth of not more than 6 to 8 meters - allow for starting an illegal mine practically anywhere: along the roads, under the basements of residential buildings, in vegetable gardens. Some people just unseal exhausted old mineshafts that were closed years ago.
According to an official estimate, there are more than 800 illegal mines in the Donbass region where people extract 30 to 40 thousand tons of coal each month worth more than one million US dollars. The real figures could be much higher.
Some 'owners' of illegal mines recruit small teams of miners who work without fixed hours in absolutely unsafe working conditions, using primitive, hand-made instruments. Minimum safety devices like emergency exits, ventilation, gas detectors and ceiling reinforcements simply do not exist in these mines.
Accidents are frequent and often lethal but there are no official figures on that. "Today, the kopankas are probably one of the most dangerous workplaces in the modern world. They also put at risk the lives of local people: many buildings and roads in the Donbass region collapsed because of the numerous makeshift galleries underground", says ILO mining expert Norman Jennings.
Children have been reported working in these illegal mines. Some of them just sort out the coal, but often they work underground. There is even a story about a woman in Snezhny who took children from the local orphanage for adoption. Every night she sent these children down to the 'family mine', where they had to respect daily production quotas risking their lives. In the morning, they were asked to load the extracted coal on the truck that was collecting it from local kopankas.
"There are almost 500,000 child labourers in Ukraine", says Mikhailo Volynets, Chairman of the Free Trade Union Confederation and the Free Miners Trade Union of Ukraine. "They work in agriculture, markets, and in illegal mines. Surveys showed that some children work because they want to be economically more independent, but 30 per cent have to work because of their family's difficult financial situation."
According to Volynets, the average age of working children is 12 years of age. An estimated 96,000 child workers are between 7 and 12 years old. "There are no statistics on children working in illegal mines there, because these places are kept secret. But since they are mostly 'family mines', children do work there, there is no doubt about it", he says.
"Illegal mines are used by criminal organizations and they also employ child labour", confirms Viachaslav Kyrylenko, the Ukrainian Minister of Labour and Social Policy, adding "after the 'orange' revolution, the new government … made a special effort to stop these illegal activities and the use of child labour in particular, and the situation has improved. I cannot say, however, that the problem has been completely resolved".
According to the Minister, the problem can be solved only if one addresses the underlying causes of this phenomenon - poverty and unemployment. He refers to weekly progress reports from the Donbass: "Since the beginning of this year we have created 30,000 new jobs there. Our ultimate goal is to offer alternative and better quality jobs to people in the region, who had no choice but to work in mines for many generations. And we are committed to attaining this goal".
The elimination of child labour in mining and quarrying
Almost all work performed by children in mining and quarrying is hazardous and considered to be one of the worst forms of child labour, as defined by the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182). As to April 2005, 153 of the ILO's 178 member States had ratified this Convention.
Each Member which ratifies Convention No. 182 must take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, for children under 18 years of age, as a matter of urgency. Only on condition that the health, safety and morals of the children concerned are fully protected, and that the children have received adequate specific instruction or vocational training, children from the age of 16 may be authorized to work in this area.
Can child labour in mining and quarrying be eliminated? The ILO says yes. Results from different projects aiming at removing children from mines and quarries show that significant achievements can be accomplished.
Child labour issues can only be solved sustainably if an integrated approach is applied. "Direct action should be coupled with local capacity building and an improvement of the normative framework", says Guy Thijs, Director of Operations for the ILO's Infocus Programme on Child Labour. "Programmes should provide health and social services, legal protection, education, income generation and alternative employment opportunities for mining families, combined with public awareness raising about the risks associated with this work for children". According to Thijs, "the best results can be obtained if all actors work together, both at the national and local level".