Women and children carry pans of ore at Dompim mining site, Tarkwa-Nsuaem district, Western Region.

 

2014 Juliane Kippenberg/Human Rights Watch

Today is the World Day Against Child Labor. But just a few days ago, I spoke to a group of boys working in artisanal, unlicensed gold mines in Ghana’s Ashanti region. One of them explained how he and his friends use mercury to process the ore, and how they regularly skip school to go mining.

Mining is one of the most hazardous types of child labor, yet Ghana and many other countries have large numbers of children working in the sector. Children breathe in dust that may cause them to cough blood, work in pits that sometimes collapse, and are exposed to toxic mercury fumes without knowing the health risks. The International Labour Organization estimates that about one million children work in artisanal mining.

International gold refiners hold significant power in the supply chain, as fewer than 20 companies refine most of the world’s gold. They should take the lead in introducing and promoting a strong standard to eradicate child labor from their supply chains. Unfortunately, the industry generally has fallen far short of that goal.

In an investigation published earlier this week, Human Rights Watch found that several international refiners that source from Ghana – such as Switzerland’s Metalor Switzerland, Dubai’s Kaloti, and India’s Kundan – have not implemented sufficient measures to ensure that gold mined by children doesn’t enter their supply chains. Several Ghanaian export companies, including the government-owned Precious Minerals Marketing Company, buy gold from local traders who ask no questions of local miners – other than if they are buying real gold.

But some companies are taking important steps in the right direction. For example, one exporter in Ghana, AsapVasa, said his company was exclusively buying gold directly at licensed mines, in order to have full control over the supply chain and be able to monitor working conditions. The Switzerland-based gold refiner PAMP has put robust due diligence procedures in place. PAMP shared detailed information with Human Rights Watch about its supply chain, including the location, number of workers, and gold processing methods at the mines where it sources its gold. Other companies have also conducted visits to sourcing sites.

An international consensus about responsible supply chains is still developing, moving beyond the historically narrow focus on conflict minerals. Guidance by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recommends specific measures that companies should put in place to ensure they do not contribute to human rights violations – including child labor – in conflict areas. Refiners should take a leading role in making these principles a reality, and help make World Day Against Child Labor obsolete.