Hazardous Work, Mercury Poisoning, and Disease
December 6, 2011
These children literally risk life and limb. They carry loads heavier than their own weight, climb into unstable shafts, and touch and inhale mercury, one of the most toxic substances on earth.
Juliane Kippenberg, senior children’s rights researcher

UPDATE: For the report, “A Poisonous Mix: Child Labor, Mercury, and Artisanal Gold Mining in Mali,” Human Rights Watch reprinted a government list that named “Kaloute Hong Kong” as buying gold from Mali’s artisanal mines.  However, Kaloti Jewellery International in Hong Kong has subsequently informed us that it does not buy such gold.

(Bamako)– At least 20,000 children work in Malian artisanal gold mines under extremely harsh and dangerous conditions, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Malian government and international donors should take action to end child labor in artisanal mines, Human Rights Watch said. Artisanal miners rely on low-tech methods and often organize informally.

The 108-page report, “A Poisonous Mix: Child Labor, Mercury, and Artisanal Gold Mining in Mali,” reveals that children as young as six dig mining shafts, work underground, pull up heavy weights of ore, and carry, crush, and pan ore. Many children also work with mercury, a toxic substance, to separate the gold from the ore. Mercury attacks the central nervous system and is particularly harmful to children.

“These children literally risk life and limb”, said Juliane Kippenberg, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They carry loads heavier than their own weight, climb into unstable shafts, and touch and inhale mercury, one of the most toxic substances on earth.”

Of 33 child laborers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, 21 said that they suffered from regular pain in the back, head, neck, arms, or joints. Children also suffer from coughing and respiratory disease. One boy about six years old described the pain he felt when digging shafts with a pickaxe for hours on end. Another boy said that “everything hurts” when he comes home after a day’s work underground.

Most children work alongside their parents to supplement the little income adult miners get from selling gold to local traders. Other children migrate to the mines by themselves, and end up being exploited and abused by relatives or strangers who take their pay. Some girls are sexually abused or engage in sex work to survive. Children come to the mines from other parts of Mali, as well as from Guinea, Burkina Faso, and other neighboring countries.

Mali’s government adopted a National Action Plan for the Elimination of Child Labor in June 2011. The plan was an important step, but implementation has been delayed and the government has taken little action on the ground, Human Rights Watch said. There are no regular labor inspections in artisanal mines, and a ban on hazardous child labor, considered a worst form of child labor, has not been enforced. Under both Malian and international law, hazardous labor, which would include working in mines and with mercury, is prohibited for anyone under age 18.

The government has also largely failed to make education accessible and available for child laborers in mines, many of whom never go to school. Schools are often far away, charge fees, and do not encourage children who have migrated from elsewhere to attend. When child laborers do attend school, they often struggle to keep up.

“Mali has strong laws on child labor and on compulsory and free education, but unfortunately, the government has not fully enforced them,” Kippenberg said. “Local officials often benefit from artisanal gold mining and have little interest in addressing child labor.”

The government has done nothing to stop the use of mercury by child laborers and should immediately develop a strategy to address the health effects of mercury on child and adult miners, Human Rights Watch said. Mercury poisoning results in a range of neurological conditions, including tremors, coordination problems, vision impairment, headaches, memory loss, and concentration problems. The toxic effects of mercury are not immediately noticeable, but develop over time. Most artisanal miners are unaware of mercury’s health effects.

Much of the gold from Mali’s artisanal mines is bought by small traders who supply middle men and trading houses in Bamako, the country’s capital. Most of the 12 Malian traders interviewed by Human Rights Watch showed little concern about child labor and health risks from mercury use. One trader said that “our idea is that we just earn money.” The president of the Mali Mining Chamber, a representative body for the mining sector, even denied there was any child labor in artisanal gold mines.

Figures obtained by Human Rights Watch from the Malian Ministry of Mines put the amount of artisanally mined gold exported per year at around four metric tons, worth around US$218 million at November 2011 prices. Most of this gold is exported to Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates, Dubai in particular.

Human Rights Watch has been able to contact three international companies that have bought gold from Mali’s artisanal mines. Kaloti Jewellery International, based in Dubai, and a Belgian company, Tony Goetz, shared with Human Rights Watch the due diligence procedures they use to make sure the gold they buy comes from legitimate sources. Kaloti stopped buying gold from Mali’s artisanal mines after learning about Human Rights Watch’s findings. Decafin, a Swiss company, said it acts at the end of a supply chain composed of at least four intermediaries and has no contact whatsoever with the producing companies or the Malian government. However, the company said that it questions suppliers about the origin of the gold and work conditions and that it would seek further information from the Mali Mining Chamber.

“If businesses have not done so yet, they need to put in place procedures to ensure their gold has not been mined by children,” Kippenberg said. “They should also work with the government and international agencies to eliminate child labor in the mines. Boycott is not the answer.”

Child labor in artisanal gold mining is common in many countries worldwide, particularly within West Africa’s gold belt, which spans Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. Mali is Africa’s third largest gold producer.

There are currently no simple alternatives to the use of mercury in artisanal gold mining, but its quantities can be greatly reduced, and its effects much better controlled, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). For example, containers called retorts should be used to capture the mercury vapor, and amalgamation in residential areas should be halted. Industrial gold mines rely on more costly and complex technology without mercury, but use cyanide.

Human Rights Watch called upon the government and its international supporters to:

  • Enforce existing labor laws that would end all forms of child labor in artisanal mining;
  • Implement the government’s June 2011 action plan on child labor;
  • Improve access to education, including through the abolition of all school fees, state support for community schools, and a cash transfer program to fund schooling for vulnerable children;
  • Develop a comprehensive health strategy to address the effects of mercury use; and
  • Provide stronger economic support for artisanal gold miners, for example through the creation of cooperatives.

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the decision of the United States to cut funding for projects aimed at ending child labor in Mali. International donors should support efforts to eliminate hazardous child labor financially, politically, and with technical expertise, Human Rights Watch said. The International Labor Organization should revive its 2005 “Minors out of Mining” global initiative to eliminate child labor in the industry.

“Gold is glamorous,” Kippenberg said. “Child labor and mercury poisoning are not, and should not need to be a part of the process of gold mining.”

"The Price of Gold: 'I don't Care if I die'" on NBC's "Rock Center with Brian Williams" includes extended interviews with the report's author, Juliane Kippenberg (plays after the commercial).

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