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Child Labor in Our Smart Phones and Watches—And What the OECD Should Do About It

Published in: L'Obs

I recently met “Joshua” in Ghana. Joshua was about 7 years old and worked in a gold mine. Surrounded by dust and noise from rock crushing machines, his job was to shovel and pan gold ore. Joshua and his friends were also breathing in poisonous mercury fumes released into the air during gold processing.

Joshua is one of an estimated one million children who work in artisanal and small-scale mines in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These mines are operated with simple machinery and are often part of the informal sector.

A 12-year-old boy in Ghana shows the mercury he uses to process gold © 2014 Human Rights Watch

This week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a chance to do something about this. The OECD hosts a forum at its headquarters in Paris, assessing whether current sourcing of minerals meet the OECD’s own 2011 Due Diligence Guidance. The Guidance sets out five steps that companies need to take to ensure they do not contribute to serious human rights abuses, such as the worst forms of child labor. It applies not only to conflict regions, but also to “high-risk” areas with institutional weaknesses, such as Ghana.

So far, the OECD has not done enough to tackle child labor in minerals supply chains. Its focus has been on the important issue of conflict minerals, and the steps companies should take to source minerals from the conflict-torn Great Lakes region responsibly. The issue of child labor has been given far less attention and tangible action by the OECD, governments, or companies remains scant.

Human Rights Watch has documented the risks children face when they work in artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Children have died when mining pits have collapsed, suffered injury from accidents, and risked mercury poisoning. Mercury, a liquid metal used to attract gold particles during the processing of the gold ore, causes brain damage, heart and lung conditions, and other irreparable health damage. Work in mining also takes a toll on children’s education: child miners often find it difficult to attend school regularly, and sometimes drop out altogether.

Human Rights Watch research in Ghana, Mali, the Philippines, and Tanzania has found that governments and businesses are not doing enough to tackle child labor in mining. These countries have laws and government institutions to eliminate child labor, but the laws remain unenforced, and the institutions are weak. Businesses sometimes fail to do their due diligence to ensure that their supply chains are free from child labor. Many local gold traders do not check the labor conditions at the mining sites they source from, and sometimes even buy gold from child laborers. And so this tainted gold enters the supply chains of global companies. Around 15 percent of the world’s gold supply comes from artisanal and small-scale gold mines.

In Ghana, we found that traders bought gold from unlicensed mines, where child labor was common, and sold it to export companies which had insufficient safeguards in place to identify and filter out gold mined by children. Some of these companies exported gold to leading refineries in Dubai and Switzerland, such as Metalor, Emirates Gold, and Kaloti. This way, gold processed by Joshua may end up in our watches, smart phones, or other goods.

There are some hopeful signs at the OECD. At this week’s OECD forum, participants will debate a potential toolkit that companies could use to detect child labor in their supply chains. The OECD is also increasingly integrating child labor issues into its work. These are good first steps that could convince companies in the minerals supply chain that safeguards against child labor can be put in place.

What is needed is a concerted effort by the OECD, governments, and companies. Companies at all points in the supply chain should conduct robust child labor due diligence. They need to have management systems in place to identify child labor risks in the supply chain; respond to the risks identified; carry out independent third-party monitoring; and publicly report on their due diligence efforts. In addition, companies should work on a broader industry initiative on child labor in mining, akin to similar industry-led initiatives on child labor in cocoa and tobacco. The OECD forum should support such industry efforts by providing guidance, a space for discussion, and seeking expert input.

Finally, the OECD and its member states need to sharpen their teeth. Voluntary codes of conduct and standards are not enough to achieve responsible sourcing by minerals companies. The OECD should create a mechanism to effectively monitor implementation of their Due Diligence Guidance, including reviewing it regularly and publicly. Member states should make human rights due diligence a legal requirement for all business sectors, such as is currently being considered by the French parliament, and vote for an international treaty on human rights and global supply chains at the International Labor Conference later this month.

Taking these steps would help make the future of children like Joshua look brighter. 

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