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.