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Hazards issue 124, October-December 2013
Gold standard: The hazardous lives of Tanzania's child gold miners
Children as young as eight years old are working in Tanzanian small-scale gold mines, with grave risks to their health and even their lives, an investigation has discovered.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on the Tanzanian government to curb child labour in small-scale mining, including at informal, unlicensed mines, and says the World Bank and donor countries should support these efforts. HRW's 96-page report, Toxic toil: Child labour and mercury exposure in Tanzania's small-scale gold mines, describes how thousands of children work in licensed and unlicensed small-scale gold mines in Tanzania, Africa's fourth-largest gold producer.

HRW interviewed more than 200 people, including 61 children working in small-scale gold mining. They found child workers dig and drill in deep, unstable pits, work underground for shifts of up to 24 hours, and transport and crush heavy bags of gold ore. Children risk injury from pit collapses and accidents with tools, as well as long-term health damage from exposure to mercury and dust, and carrying heavy loads.

“Tanzanian boys and girls are lured to the gold mines in the hopes of a better life, but find themselves stuck in a dead-end cycle of danger and despair,” said Janine Morna, children's rights research fellow at HRW. “Tanzania and donors need to get these children out of the mines and into school or vocational training.” HRW says child labourers, as well as children living near mining sites, are at serious risk of mercury poisoning. Miners mix mercury with crushed ground ore and burn the resulting gold-mercury amalgam to release the gold, exposing them to poisonous mercury fumes. Even small children who are not working are often present during this process, which is sometimes carried out in the home.

The gold industry has a responsibility to ensure it does not benefit directly or indirectly from unlawful child labour, HRW notes. Yet most gold traders it interviewed in Tanzania had no procedures to keep gold mined by children out of their supply chains. “As those with the buying power, gold traders have leverage over their suppliers,” Morna said. “They should use it to protect children and to protect consumers from buying gold tainted by child labour.”


PURE POISON  A 15-year-old boy mixes ground gold with highly toxic and brain damaging mercury to extract the precious metal at a processing site in Mbeya Region, Tanzania.

REGULATION PROBLEM   “On paper, Tanzania has strong laws prohibiting child labour in mining, but the government has done far too little to enforce them,” HRW’s Janine Morna said. “Labour inspectors need to visit both licensed and unlicensed mines regularly, and ensure employers face sanctions for using child labour.” This gold processing site in Mbeya Region, Tanzania, is unlikely to ever seen an inspector.

MISSED LESSONS A 13-year-old boy, who mines gold, attends classes in a small-scale mining area in Mbeya Region, Tanzania. Work in mining interferes with children’s performance and attendance at school. Human Rights Watch wants the government and aid donors to get children out of the mines and into education. It says the pressure should also come from further up the supply chain.

GRAVE SITUATION Two 13-year-old boys dig an unsupported trench by hand, searching for gold ore at a small-scale mine in Mbeya Region, Tanzania. Small traders typically purchase gold directly at the mines or in mining towns and then sell it to larger traders in Tanzania. Sometimes the gold passes through several intermediaries before reaching the traders who export the gold. According to the Tanzanian government, small-scale miners produced about 1.6 tons of gold in 2012 – worth about US$85 million (£53m).

EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES? A miner holds a small piece of gold ore at a small-scale mining site in Mbeya Region, Tanzania. Human Rights Watch found that girls in and around mining sites face sexual harassment, including pressure to engage in sex work.

UNHEALTHY OUTCOMES Two 13-year-olds and one 15-year-old boy pour crushed gold ore over a sisal sack to concentrate the particles of gold at a processing site in Mbeya Region. Most adult and child miners are unaware of the health risks. Health workers lack training and facilities and are not equipped to diagnose or treat mercury poisoning. Existing laws and initiatives have largely failed to reduce mercury use.

DEADLY PRODUCT A miner holds processed gold at a small-scale mining site in Mbeya Region, Tanzania. A 17-year-old boy who survived a pit accident told Human Rights Watch: “I thought I was dead, I was so frightened.”


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Gold standard

Children as young as eight years old are working in Tanzanian small-scale gold mines, with grave risks to their health and even their lives, an investigation has discovered.

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Human Rights Watch.

Toxic Toil: Child Labour and Mercury Exposure in Tanzania's Small-Scale Gold Mines, HRW, 2013.

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