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In Tanzania, I met "Julius", a boy of about 13, who works in an artisanal gold mine. He told me he digs ore in pits more than 15 metres deep and mixes toxic mercury with ground ore to retrieve the gold. Once a pit collapsed and almost killed another boy, his friend. The work had made him feel "pain in the whole body."

This week, some of the world's leading jewellers, gold refiners and traders are meeting at the Precious Metals Conference in Hong Kong about the state of the gold business globally. The focus is on the growing importance of China in the gold sector and the global economic crisis. Unfortunately, child labour and other human rights issues will not be on the agenda. But that's not because it's a marginal issue.

Some 1 million children work in artisanal and small-scale mines that rely on basic techniques and often belong to the "informal sector" that avoids government regulation. Mines in Africa, Asia and Latin America produce 15 per cent of the world's gold. This gold often reaches traders and refiners in Switzerland, Dubai and elsewhere.

At great risk, children dig pits and work underground, haul and crush ore, and are exposed to toxic mercury used to separate out the gold. Many don't go to school; others do, including Julius, but find it hard to keep up. Much of this work is prohibited under international law for anyone under 18.

Many gold industry actors have recently been keen to show their commitment to ethical business, notably through creating gold-specific voluntary standards. This includes a standard developed by the conference organiser, the London Bullion Market Association, to address "systematic or widespread abuses of human rights".

Governments are also taking new interest in ethical minerals: a provision in the US Dodd-Frank Act obliges businesses that import from the Democratic Republic of Congo to ensure their mineral supply chains aren't contributing to armed conflict.

However, child labour in artisanal gold mining has received little attention. This week's gathering would be a good place to start to address the plight of thousands of children working in gold mines.

A boycott of gold mined with child labour will not solve the problem - and would hurt communities that depend on mining. Rather, companies should contribute to efforts to end hazardous child labour and improve access to education. In line with UN Guiding Principles, companies should implement due diligence to ensure they don't benefit from child labour directly or indirectly. Only if the gold industry treats child labour as a priority will the problem be tackled - so children like Julius can have genuine alternatives.

Juliane Kippenberg is a senior children's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch

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