GOLD has always fascinated. In times of crisis such as ours, it offers hope for stability, security, and happiness. In our Christmas candle-lit shopping malls, it conjures images of glamour and festiveness.
But for about a million children working in gold mining around the world, gold means hard work and pain. They are an important workforce in artisanal gold mining, which relies on low-tech methods and is often organised informally. In West Africa alone, at least eight countries use child labour in artisanal gold mining.
During a recent investigation in Mali, I saw children work underground in shafts up to 30 m deep. One boy told me it was hard to do this work alone underground, and he had to make sure to have enough strength left to climb up. A shaft had recently collapsed.
I met boys as young as six, who were pulling up the ore from the shafts and transporting it — carrying loads that weighed more than they did.
Children also told me that they worked with mercury. They mixed the mercury with their bare hands into the ore, and then burnt the amalgam to separate out the gold, inhaling the highly toxic fumes.
Several girls told me they worked with mercury daily. What they did not know: mercury is one of the most toxic substances on earth — it attacks the central nervous system and is particularly harmful to children.
These children risk life and limb to contribute to their family’s income, or because some adults exploit their labour and keep the profit.
There has been a lot of debate about corporate social responsibility in recent years. Unfortunately, most gold traders I interviewed in Mali showed no concern about the use of child labour in artisanal gold mining, nor about the use of mercury. One simply said: "Our idea is that we just earn money."
Last week, I was in Bamako — Mali’s capital — talking to businesses, the government and donors about our research findings. I went to the Mali Mining Chamber, a representative of the mining sector that was recently inaugurated with fanfare, in the presence of gold mining companies, the World Bank, and officials.
I was made to wait on a plush, cream-coloured leather sofa, then brought to a conference room with an impressive solid wood table and decorum. There, I met the president of the chamber, Abdoulaye Pona, and four members of the chamber.
After some polite greetings and introductory discussion, Pona declared that there was no child labour in the country’s artisanal gold mines — he was willing to get into a car and show me right away.
He questioned the accuracy of government and United Nations figures in our report and concluded that no one in Mali knew as much about artisanal mining as the mining chamber.
Hence, if there was child labour in the mines, the chamber would be the organisation to address the problem. But luckily, there wasn’t.
The mining chamber’s denial contrasted with the government’s reaction. The labour minister congratulated us on the report and agreed that the problem was huge.
His ministry had developed an action plan on child labour, which had not found sufficient government and donor support yet.
Other officials also welcomed the report and indicated a willingness to act, for example on access to education for migrant child labourers, and on gathering evidence about mercury’s health effects.
Much more needed to be done, but at least this was a start.
Even some international businesses want to address the issue of child labour in gold mining. Kaloti Jewellery International, a Dubai-based company, suspended its trade in gold from Mali’s artisanal mines after learning about Human Rights Watch’s research findings, and expressed interest in supporting initiatives against child labour. Earlier this year, a new Fairtrade and Fairmined Standard was introduced.
However, if Mali wants to address the problem of child labour in gold mines, it cannot do so without the gold traders. Businesses have a responsibility to address human rights abuses to which they contribute.
The Mali Mining Chamber could play a crucial role by developing a code of conduct for the sector, sensitising traders, and supporting educational projects in mining areas.
The government, donors and international mining companies should urge the mining chamber to take on that role — not if there is child labour, but because there is child labour that destroys children’s lives.
Juliane Kippenberg is a children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.