According to Human Right Watch Report A Poisonous Mix Child Labor, Mercury, and Artisanal Gold Mining in Mali published in December 2011 it is estimated that between 20,000 and 40,000 children work in Mali’s artisanal gold mining sector. Many of them start working as young as six years old. These children are subjected to some of the worst forms of child labor, leading to injury, exposure to toxic chemicals, and even death. They dig shafts more underground, pull up, carry and crush the ore, and pan it for gold. Owing to such hazardous occupation many children complain of headaches, pain in , necks, arms, or backs, and risk long-term spinal injury from carrying heavy weights and from enduring repetitive motion. Children often sustain injuries from falling rocks and sharp tools, and at many occasions have even fallen into the shafts being grievously injured. In addition, they risk grave injuries while working in unstable shafts that sometimes collapse.
In spite of international conventions and declarations, especially the ILO Convention 182 on Worst Forms of Child Labour, prohibiting the employment of children in mines and quarries, child labour continues unabated in the mines of many countries across the world.. They are found working in quarries, open cast mines and small underground quarries, in conditions, which are absolutely hazardous in nature. Mining and quarrying are among the most dangerous and unhealthy occupations, and children and adolescents are increasingly joining the industry.
Child Labour in mining is equally prevalent in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
- Children are found working in the mines of West African countries like Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
- Children are engaged in mining gold, diamond, chrome, tin, as well as quarry stones.
- Sierra Leone is one such diamond producing country where economic interest was fuelled outrageous violence, which took the shape of a civil war in mining conflict diamond. The USA, UK, and Belgium-Luxembourg are the main destinations for diamond exports from Sierra Leonne.
- Bonded labour, including child-bonded labour is rampant in granite quarries of in India. The United States imported $34 million of worked and un-worked stone, including granite and marble, from India in 1994.
- In 1992, the Philippines exported almost $2 million worth of non-monetary gold and approximately $16 million of gold and silver jewellery to the United States. The children reportedly earned between 40 and 50 pesos per day (approximately $1.62 to $2).
- More than 9 million people depend on mining for a living, most of them being women and children.
- Of 400,000 people engaged in mining in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, 65,000 are children aged 5-17, while 135,000 are younger children who run similar occupational risks.
- Nearly 20 to 50 percent of the workers are under the age of 18, with some reportedly as young as 11, in the Madre de Dios department in Peru, which forms over three-fourths of Peru's gold deposits.
- Peru is the world’s second-largest producer of silver, sixth-largest producer of gold and copper, and a significant source of the world’s zinc and lead. Mineral exports averaged around 50% of total earnings between 1998 and 2003.
Despite its wealth in gold, Mali remains a very poor country. The 2010 Human Development Index, which measures health, education and income, ranks Mali as 160th out of 169 countries1 .About 50 percent of the population is living on less than one dollar per day2, and social indicators rank very low. Almost 20 percent of all children die before their fifth birthday, and adults have, on average, attended school for only 1.4 years3 Human rights and development organizations have commented critically on the limited benefit of Mali’s gold sector for the wider population, including a lack of revenue transparency.4
Child miners are also exposed to mercury, a highly toxic substance, which is mixed with gold and the amalgam is subsequently burnt out to separate gold. Mercury attacks the central nervous system and is particularly harmful to the children. Child labourers run the risk of mercury poisoning, which results in a range of neurological conditions, including tremors, coordination problems, vision impairment, headaches, memory loss, and concentration problems. The toxic effects of mercury are not immediately noticeable, but develop over time: it is hard to detect for people who are not medical experts. Most adult and child artisanal miners are unaware of the grave health risks associated with the use of mercury.
There are various treaties and convention put in place for elimination of child labour and providing education to child miners but still a lot needs to be achieved. All over Mali’s artisanal mining zones, small gold traders buy the gold mined by children and adults. Sometimes, the traders assist with amalgamation; in other cases, they buy the raw gold after amalgamation. Traders in Mali and the sub region have a responsibility to ensure that they are not buying gold mined by children, but many of the traders interviewed by Human Rights Watch showed little awareness or concern about their responsibility.
“Knowing the fact that millions of children worldwide are working as bonded and child labourers in mining industry, how can you keep on using metals, stones and other mining products comfortably? As responsible consumers we must boycott these things”, said Kailash Satyarthi, Chairperson of Global March Against Child Labour. He further said that on one hand we must work for “corporate social accountability” mechanisms and not be satisfied with mere philanthropic measures under the name of CSR and on the other hand try to build strong, active and genuine partnerships among various stakeholders. He further demanded that proper mapping of mining areas, identifications and withdrawal of child labourers, their proper rehabilitation and education must be ensured with a sense of utmost urgency.
1 United Nations Development Program (UNDP), “International Human Development Indicators,” 2010,
3 UNDP, “International Human Development Indicators”.
4 Oxfam, “Hidden Treasures”; International Federation for Human Rights, “Gold Mining and Human Rights in Mali,”
September 2007, http://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/Mali_mines_final-en.pdf (accessed June 1, 2011); Human Rights Watch
interview with Hon. Moussa Coumbere, KolondiŽba, April 7, 2011