Child labour on the increase in Sierra Leone – weak and unimplemented laws

Emmanuel A.M. Sam: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 23 July 2019:

Sierra Leone and its people have gone through tough phases and rough paths in recent history. Sierra Leone is emerging from a decade long brutal civil conflict and the relics of the war are still glaring in every part of the country. Economic hardship, the decimation caused by the Ebola virus and the mudslide are all too obvious.

Child labour has become a very serious concern for both human rights activists and civil society organizations in the country. Sierra Leone is signatory to many child rights conventions and protocols on child labour. The country has signed International Labour Conventions that are starkly against the use of child labour.

Sierra Leone has signed the Minimum Age Convention also known as Convention No 138; the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention also known as Convention 182. These Conventions govern child labour laws, regulate and help prevent violations of children’s rights.

The country has signed and ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which is the most ratified children’s convention in the world. In 2007, the country incorporated the CRC into domestic law thereby enacting the Child Rights Act 2007. This Act is similar in its provisions to that of the CRC.

But the question that human rights activists and civil society organizations in the country are asking is this: is Sierra Leone really honouring its obligations under these conventions? The answer is no.

Although Sierra Leone has many applicable international and domestic laws governing child labour, child labour violations continue unabated. Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of child labour in diamond mining.

The question then becomes – what is child labour?

According to IPEC, child labour could be defined as “ work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity that is harmful to physical and mental development.” Work for the development of the child could be regarded as child labour but not grouped under the worst forms of child labour.

For example, if the child engages in doing domestic work especially girls who usually help their parents at home to cook and work, helping in the family business, such works are regarded as light work. But if such work deprives them of their education, it could be regarded as child labour, though not the worst form of child labour.

According to ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (No. 182), article 3 (a), (b), (c), (d) list the forms of child labour that are regarded as the worst forms of child labour. Article 3 (d) categorizes work in mining operations as the worst form of child labour, defining it as “work which by its nature or circumstances in which it is carried out, it is likely to harm the health, safety and morals of children.”

Let me quickly walk you through some national laws that have been enacted that are against child labour but not implemented:

Government of Sierra Leone, Child Rights Act 2007. This Act incorporated most sections of the CRC; Government of Sierra Leone, Mines and Minerals Act 2009. This Act regulates the conducts of mining in Sierra Leone; Government of Sierra Leone, Employer and Employee Act 1960. This Act regulates employer and employee relationship in the country; Government of Sierra Leone, Education Act 2004. The Act was enacted to reform education with a special provision for pre-primary education and a provision for technical and vocational institutions.

From all intents and purposes, I can safely state that there are a lot of conflicting provisions between the national laws (Laws enacted by Sierra Leone Parliament) and those international laws regulating child labour. For example, Article 7 of the ILO Minimum Age Convention makes provision for Children between ages 13 and 15 to engage in light work. Article 127 of the Child Rights Act (CRA) sets the minimum age for children to engage in light work at 13. This is in direct correlation to the provisions of Article 7 of the Minimum Age Convention. So in essence, both the CRC and CRA provide for children to engage in light work between age 13 and 15.

Contrary to the CRC and CRA, the Employers and Employed Act CAP.212 1960, provides for children under the age of 12 years to do domestic work (light work). So the Employer and Employee Act conflicts with both the CRC and the Minimum Age Convention. This conflict sometimes leads to violation, because some employers exploit that conflict to employ children to work for them below the required age for work.

In 2010, IBIS recorded that over half a million children in Sierra Leone were out of school working in the mines. This is a complete violation of both international and national laws on child labour. Children under the age of 12 are employed in Sierra Leone especially in diamond mines.

Section 135 of the CRA sets the minimum age standards for children undertaking any form of apprenticeship to be at least age 15. Another provision contrary to this is provided in section 57 of the Employers and Employed Act which allows children to start apprenticeship at age 13. The only proviso is that such child should work but with the consent of his parent or guardian.

Such provision could be seen as a recipe for problems in the interpretation of the different Acts dealing with child labour. These conflicting Acts are causing problems for interpretation thereby making child rights advocacy difficult.

While the CRA is talking of employing a child as apprentice at age 15 the Employer and Employee Act provides that a child could be employed at age a 13. A research carried out in the North and East of the country in 2010 shows that fifty-six percent (56%) of children in primary school drop out of school early.

Over sixty percent (60%) of secondary school children also drop out of school without completing their high school and are employed in different sectors. This is a serious violation of both the CRC and the CRA which have provisions that say, the welfare and interest of the child should be a priority for state-governments.

Furthermore, section 54 (2) of the Employers and Employee Act permits children to participate in mining activities at age 16. No provisions for these children to receive any vocational or formal training to undertake such activities. Such provision is in contrast with Article 3 (3) of Convention No.182. Mining activity is regarded as one of the worst forms of child labour, and children under age 18 should only participate in such activities if they are given the appropriate vocational or equivalent training.

But Section 54(2) of the Employers and Employed Act makes no mention of vocational training. The Act places emphasis on whether the child is healthy enough to undertake such an activity. This is another problem of conflicting provisions of the law.

A child that is employed in mining below 18 is a mere violation of his/her rights. Hundreds of children are fully employed in these mines.

The Sierra Leone government has prioritized education and the new government has a free quality education as one of its flagship programs. But my visit to some of these mines discovers the contrary. While the government is working very hard to getting these kids to school, their parents are finding it difficult to work with the central government.

In the wake of child labour, the inability for children to protect their rights, individually or collectively is a major challenge. Compulsory age for schooling for all children in Sierra Leone is 15 years, according to section 2 (1) (a) (b) and (c) of the Education Act 2004. However, in 2017, it was estimated that about fifteen to seventeen thousand children were out of school.

Such statistics shows a complete violation of the child’s right to education as provided by Article 28 (1) (b) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which states: “Primary education shall be compulsory and made available free for all”. In some cases, some children are enrolled in school but because of child labour many children leave school prematurely. This is a violation of children’s rights which leaves them with some pernicious consequences.

In Sierra Leone, the Child rights Act prohibits children engaging in hazardous work. Any work that is hazardous is categorized as being part of the worst forms of child labour. According to section 128 (3) (b), mining is regarded as one of the hazardous works and children should only engage in such work at 18 years. That is the prescription of the law by which the mining sector is regulated in relation to children’s employment. However, this is quite the contrary to what really obtains in reality. Children below the age of 13 are employed in diamond mines. This is a gross violation of not just children’s rights but human rights in general.

There are laws enacted in Sierra Leone by the country’s parliament to protect children’s right to health, but I am of the view that those enacted laws are not implemented to help the vulnerable children.

Section 128 (2) of the Child Rights Acts provides: “work is hazardous when it poses a danger to the health, safety or morals of a person.” This section lays high premium on the health and safety of the child which also forbids hazardous work for children. In a similar manner, Article 24 (1) of the CRC provides: “States parties recognized the right of the child enjoyment of the highest standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health.” However, contrary to these laws, children in Sierra Leone are exposed to artisanal mining that is hazardous to their health and development.

According to UNICEF Country Report on Sierra Leone2013, Sierra Leone has the highest rate of child mortality rate in the world and this is as a result of malnutrition and insufficient healthcare for vulnerable children. So, this is in contrast to all the excellent provisions in the law about the health of children in the country.

Children engage in activities like shovelling large amount of gravel, carrying heavy loads on their head; and some help in moving stones in diamond mines. These activities have some telling effects on these children’s health, it sometimes causes serious bodily pains – a mere violation of their rights.

The UN General Comment No.11 (2009) further elaborates on Article 24 of the CRC, it provides: “states parties shall ensure that all children enjoy the highest attainable standard of health and have access to health-care services.” The Committee urges states parties to take measures to ensure that indigenous children are not discriminated against enjoying the highest standard of health.

Section 128 of the Child Rights Act 2007 also prioritizes children’s health in all sense of the word. Section 128 of the Child Rights Act states: “Every child should not be deprived of his/her health hence should not be subjected to hazardous work or working environment.” These are mere words on paper, because violation of children’s right to health care is prevalent in every part of the country.

In 2015, Humanium, a child rights Non-Governmental Organization recorded that Under-5 mortality rate is about 18.5%. Sierra Leone has the fifth highest infant mortality rate in the world. The issue of healthcare is not just a violation of children’s rights but goes against the inherent logic of human rights as a whole.

In 2014, World Health Organization (WHO), provided a factsheet on the statistics of healthcare in Sierra Leone. From their findings, it became clear that children’s right to quality health care in Sierra Leone is being seriously violated. In fact, in artisanal mines, children are exposed to drinking still water which seriously affect their health. In some cases, these mines/pits are fragile and sometimes collapse on children working in the mines.

Children are exposed to several tropical diseases in these mining areas and with little or no health care facilities where some are left to die. Such facts and statistics are contrary to the provisions of the laws on children’s health in the country.

My advice to the government of Sierra Leone

I write with my Business and Human Rights spectacle on. Therefore, a starting point for any remedy of child labour could be the implementation of the Ruggie principles on business and human rights. (Photo: Author – Emmanuel A.M. Sam).

In 2008, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations unanimously accepted the principles put forward by UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Business and Human Rights – John Ruggie, who provided some guidance on the relationship between transnational corporations and the respect for human rights.

These principles have guidelines on the operations and accountability of transnational corporations. Based on these principles, the UN brought up a legal framework called “Protect, Respect and Remedy” to guide companies on how to end child labour. The UN framework could be an effective remedy mechanism states can incorporate into their laws, thereby streamlining the roles of the companies and their responsibilities in making sure that children are not employed to carry out hazardous work.

These guiding principles are used by human rights activists in different countries as a frame work to campaign against child labour and for these corporations to maintain quality labour standards. The principle of due-diligence which is the identification, mitigation, prevention and accounting for human rights violations has worked very well for some countries.

Countries like Sierra Leone can implement some of these frameworks in the mining industry, to serve as an accountability mechanism for corporations engaged in mining activities and prevent them from employing child labour.

The Tackle Project is another great remedy if it is implemented by states. The Tackle Project is a project by International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). The project was jointly launched by the European Commission (EC) and the International Labour Organization (ILO). The key aim of this project is to eliminate the worst forms of child labour through educational strategies.

The Tackle Project monitors the implementation of both the ILO Minimum Age Convention and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention. In Sierra Leone, the Child Labour National Steering Committee was formed through the support and guidelines of the Tackle Project. The Steering Committee looks into child labour activities and helps prevent child labour where necessary.

It is believed that if children are given full access to education, there may be little or no room to resort to doing hazardous work. Tackle could be a good remedy in tackling some of these challenges if implemented well.

There are both national and international anti-child labour laws in Sierra Leone. But these laws are weak and there are no specific action plans aimed at giving enforceable measures if those laws are breached. Adopting anti-child labour laws is very important but weak implementation and enforceability can render those laws inactive. For example, in Sierra Leone, although the government has anti-child labour laws, but the Employer and Employee Act still has section providing for children below the age of 12 years to engage in agricultural and horticultural activities. It is obvious that the anti-child labour laws are weak in enforcement. The implementation and enforcement of both national and international anti-child labour laws may yield great result in the fight against child labour.

Government should allocate more funds towards enforcement of anti-child labour laws and make a uniform system of laws on child labour. The government has not done enough to create laws that will clearly state conducts that can be regarded as child labour in a uniform system. The government has not allocated enough funds towards the fight against child labour.

When communities are aware of the social stigma associated with child labour, it creates room for eliminating it. If a parent of a child realizes that some other community members would frown at him/her for allowing the child to engage in bad labour practices, such parent (s) can easily desist from such action. The strategy of enacting laws that stigmatize child labour has been very effective in the fight against child labour.


  1. I never knew such an article was published in the Telegraph. I was working on my dissertation last year that I really needed some of the national and international acts cited in this article. This is a great read.

  2. We own a media firm that looks into such issues and make documentary out of it. I was wondering how could we reach out to the author of this piece to seek his consent to do a documentary relying on this article. Please reach out to me on my email that I have provided with this comment.

  3. This is a well researched article indeed. I was in Sierra Leone last year, I saw a lot of kids in the street selling water and other stuff that were not worth not attending school. Can I please share this article?

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