Since October 2016, the French multinational Lafarge, global leader in the cement industry has been subject to a judicial inquiry into the financing of terrorist enterprises in Syria and its relations with ISIS. This year it was the company attempt to participate in the construction of the anti-migrant wall of Donald Trump that created great controversy. Following a fusion with the Swiss company Holcim, the LafargeHolcim group still hides many dark cases. Indeed, the French Newspaper Le Monde revealed in 2016 that the group and its suppliers took advantage of child labour in Uganda. While the current global dynamic is at a time of major advances in the mandatory corporate social responsibility (CSR) approach, it is worth recalling the “unresolved issues”  of the LafargeHolcim case in Uganda.
Uganda, an example of a country conquered by foreign interests in “grey gold”
The issue of child labour in mines in Uganda is strongly related to the geopolitical situation of resources in Africa. Grey gold is an expanding sector in sub-Saharan and east Africa. Indeed, the market is stimulated by the high demand for building construction and infrastructure projects in neighbouring countries . On average, since 2013, the cement and building materials sector is in surplus on the continent.
Uganda is no exception and prospects for enrichment in the country have aroused foreign investments. As a landlocked country, between the Democratic Republic of Congo in the west and Kenya in the east, Uganda opened itself to foreign companies in 1986, when President Yoweri Museveni liberalized the economy. This policy has serious consequences since it encourages “all abuses and violations of the rights [of the Ugandan people]” deplored by the executive director of the local NGO Twerwaneho Listeners’ Club . Thus, vulnerable populations such as children pay the high price of such an economic policy.
The facts of the case
For six months the local NGO Twerwaneho Listeners’ Club (TLC) and the Swiss charitable foundation Bread for All (BFA) collected testimonies from 54 people including 20 children living in the Fort Portal area near the company’s cement plant Hima Cement Limited, a subsidiary of the LafargeHolcim group in Uganda.
In the town of Harugongo, in the west of the country, the mine faces the school. Yet children working with artisanal miners have to extract the pozzolana, a volcanic rock used in the manufacture of cheap cement in large quantities. They work usually unprotected and sometimes bare-handed. Thus, children supply raw materials with low labour costs since they receive between 7 000 and 8 000 Ugandan shillings a day or approximately 2 euros .
Despite the multinational’s protests, the survey leads by the two NGOs showed that the supply of Hima in pozzolana to artisanal miners began in 1992. In addition, child labour in quarries has been confirmed since the early 2000s. From the revelations of the newspaper Le Monde in March 2016 until September of the same year, it can be counted that about 150 children supplied mineral resources to the subsidiary of the LafargeHolcim group .
After the great media coverage, the Hima Ciment company decided on January 2017 to cease all business relations with artisanal miners. However, it denied having used child labour in its supply chain. This decision allowed the multinational LafargeHolcim not to be involved in the child labour affair in Uganda although these children were exploited by its subsidiary for nearly 10 years.
The irreversible impact of child labour on human development
Instead of following the way to school, children help their families to earn more decent incomes, pay tuition fees, replace a disabled or ill parent or buy medicines. Work in quarries and mines represents the worst form of child labour  and has a double consequence on children’s development.
On the one hand, the physical sequelae are irreversible: children suffer injuries due to the extraction of minerals, develop diseases (e.g. cough, dizziness, abdominal pain, respiratory insufficiency) and have a stunted growth due to blocks of rocks of about 15 kilos which they carry from their very young age. In addition, to keep the long working days, children are often used to take drugs.
On the other hand, the social impact of child labour, in particular in terms of education, should not be minimized. Indeed, both NGOs highlight that many children have dropped out of school to devote themselves to work in quarries. The cessation of Hima company supply to artisanal miners increased parental unemployment and crime in the locality. The rehabilitation of these populations is therefore one of issues abandoned by the LafargeHolcim group.
The duty to respect human rights in supply chains
The duty to respect human rights, particularly in the field of work, is often circumvented by companies because of the complexity of the stages of the business relationship and the number of actors involved. Often the legal autonomy of the subsidiary impedes the parent company’s liability.
In this way, the LafargeHolcim case in Uganda highlights the complexity of the supply chain of multinationals. Thus, LafargeHolcim is indirectly linked to Hima Cement because it owns 70% of the company’s capital through Bamburi Cement Limited, a mining company located in Nairobi, Kenya .
The complexity of the supply chain often prevents the parent company from being held accountable for its obligations to subsidiaries relocated to countries with low labour costs and lacking an effective system of social regulation. The development of a mandatory CSR at the heart of international public policies would be a solution to end such practices and make companies aware of the negative consequences of their activities in the countries of supply.
Corporate social responsibility, towards a mandatory business ethic?
Finally, what is truly at stake is the corporate social responsibility. In 2011, the United Nations adopted the UN Business and Human Rights Guidelines (UNGP) reaffirming the responsibility of businesses to conduct due diligence in human rights. In regard to it, the Swiss company LafargeHolcim does not respect these principles of soft law.
Today, CSR commitments are intensifying and hardening: some countries such as the United Kingdom (the Modern Slavery Act of 2015), the United States Responsible Business Conduct of 2016), France (Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law of 2017) legally oblige companies to make commitments in this field .
These regulations include, inter alia, long-awaited measures to allow compensation for the harm suffered by victims of human rights violations. However, this is not yet the case for Switzerland, whose companies do not seem to decide to voluntarily reduce the impact of their activities on vulnerable populations. However, in the face of the scandals of Swiss national companies, the duty of care will be the subject of a referendum in 2018.
Children working in mines in Uganda, a lost generation?
Concerning the future of minor children in Harugongo, Ugandan civil society is gathering around NGOs with purpose of forcing LafargeHolcim to send children miners to school or to provide them access to vocational training to generate a new source of income.
Child labor represents all activities that deprive children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity. Businesses should see the impacts of their activities on a long-term basis: depriving children of their potential also means depriving a future generation of adults of the opportunity to become skilled, competent and healthy workers.
Article written by Fiona NOUDJENOUME