By Stephen Kafeero
Their labour thrives on weak laws, poverty, ignorance
Joseph Nsereko is blessed with a big, boyish smile; which is a good thing because the job this 14-year old does is anything but boyish. He is a brick maker, one of many children around the country involved in one of the most backbreaking jobs for anyone.
Already, the muscles on Nsereko’s body stand out like he is a wrestler and his face is freckled from spending up to 10 hours a day covered in mud and getting baked in the sun.
His movements are swift as he grabs a mound of wet mud twice the size a football, slaps it forcefully into a wooden mould and compresses the brick with a wooden panel which in the same movement removes any excess clay. Quickly he darts to the drying area, lays out the brick to sun-dry and repeats the action, making up to 200 bricks a day.
It is 8.00am on a Sunday morning, but Nsereko is already busy at the brick kiln in the swampy marshland of Lugonjo village in Entebbe Municipality, a 20-minute drive from the capital, Kampala.
Together with other boys, Nsereko is supervised by the kiln owner, who shares out the daily work. Some boys prepare the bricks; molding them and laying them out to dry. Others carry the dried bricks and build them into kilns for burning. Still more boys load trucks with finished bricks or fetch water and do other jobs that come by. The boys work with no supervision. They perform each task ungrudgingly, like pros. By the day’s end Nsereko thick hair is caked in clay and the light in his white bold eyes has died. He is really a child but, even if he accepts this life as his fate, the day’s work has killed his childhood.
Most of the boy brick-makers come from very penurious families and this partly accounts for their starting to work when young. Most are barely 14 years, but some have worked in the area for over 5 years, meaning they have been child laborers since they were about nine years old.
The boys are paid Shs 1000 each to load a 4-ton truck of bricks but this too varies depending on the number of boys working on the vehicle and the generosity of their employer. Older boys or men demand Shs5000 for the same job.
Most have never been to school while some, like Charles Bemba, try to juggle school and work.
Like Nsereko, Bemba is 14 years-old. Ideally, at that age he should be in lower secondary school but like many other they still lag in primary school.
“During school days, I rush from school at 4.00pm such that I can come here and work up to 7.00pm,” says Bemba.
The boys face the danger of catching waterborne diseases as the work in the swamps and are exposed to all kinds of injuries as they work without protective gear. It is not unusual for someone to fall into any of the dangerous-looking ponds that are left open and filled with water when the clay is dug out. Some have drowned. But Nsereko’s friend, Jordan, who is the youngest of the lot, is beaming with confidence. “Those who die do not know how to swim but we are champions,” he says.
They have never heard about child labour laws and when I explain it to them, one of the men working at the site threatens to throw me out.“Do you want our source of livelihood to be closed,” he asks. He possibly knows that it’s not right under the law for the children to work as brick-makers but prefers to keep it that way.
Because of poverty many people in the area have grown to value child labour.
“If we stop them they will turn into thieves,” says a resident of the area.
The boys, in fact, see themselves as industrious and smart.
“‘Mwana tweyiya,” Nsereko says in his mother-tongue, Luganda, which means “We are fending for ourselves”.
An estimate places the number of child workers aged 5-17 at 2.7 million or 25.4% of children in that age group. This includes 2.2 million children under the age of 11. But these figures are from the 2010 National Household survey and a new survey to be released soon is expected to show a surge in child labour.
A child labour baseline survey conducted in 2009 by the International Labour Organization and the Uganda Bureau of Statistics indicates that over 336,000 children are engaged in economic activities in Uganda.
Militon Turyasiiima, the Principal Labour Officer Research and Statistics says that the Ministry of Gender, Labour, and Social development is implementing its mandate in the fight against child labour and concrete results are expected with the enactment of the National Action plan on Child Labour.
But Turyasiima says progress in the fight against child labour is impeded by public ignorance of the problem of using children as labourers, poverty, and diseases such as HIV/AIDS which have spawned an army of orphans who have to fend for themselves.
Meanwhile, all that Nsereko and other child labourers think about is work and the next penny. They do not have time either to play or do other things that a normal child of their age should be doing. They possibly have dreams and ambitions in life. The question is whether they will be able to achieve them.