Gold is being produced by thousands of children in Mali, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
At least 20,000, some as young as six years old, are working in primitive, dangerous conditions.
HRW is demanding that international donors and the Malian government take action.
The children dig mining shafts, work underground, pull up heavy weights of ore and carry, crush and pan ore. They also work with mercury, which is particularly harmful to children.
Those interviewed said they suffered regular pain in the back, head, neck, arms, or joints as well as coughing and respiratory disease.
“I work at the mining site. I look after the other children and I carry minerals. It is hard,” Mamadou S., a child in Baroya estimated to be 6 years old, told HRW. “I work with mercury. You mix it in a cup and put it on the fire.”
Most work alongside their parents, but others work by themselves, and end up being exploited and abused by relatives or strangers who take their pay. Some girls are sexually abused or engage in sex work to survive. Children come to the mines from other parts of Mali, as well as from Guinea, Burkina Faso and other neighboring countries.
Child labor in artisanal gold mining is common in many countries worldwide, particularly within West Africa’s gold belt.
Although Mali has a National Action Plan for the Elimination of Child Labor, it has taken little action, HRW says, and the mines are not being inspected. The president of the Mali Mining Chamber, a representative body for the mining sector, denied there was any child labor in artisanal gold mines.
Said Juliane Kippenberg, senior children’s rights researcher:
Mali has strong laws on child labor and on compulsory and free education, but unfortunately, the government has not fully enforced them. Local officials often benefit from artisanal gold mining and have little interest in addressing child labor.
Mali is Africa’s third largest gold producer. Most of the gold, worth around US $218 million, is exported to Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates, Dubai in particular.
HRW found three companies at the end of the supply chain. Kaloti Jewellery International, based in Dubai, stopped buying Malian gold after they learned of HRW’s findings. Decafin, a Swiss company, said it would seek more information.
In 2008, Decafin unsuccessfully sued AP to stop the publication of an article showing that Decafin was buying gold from middlemen that in turn bought from mines using child labor in Mali.
HRW expressed concern about the decision of the United States to cut funding for projects aimed at ending child labor in Mali. International donors should support efforts to eliminate hazardous child labor financially, politically and with technical expertise, they said. They also want the International Labor Organization to revive its 2005 “Minors out of Mining” global initiative to eliminate child labor in the industry.
Watch: “The Price of Gold: ‘I don’t Care if I die’” on NBC’s “Rock Center with Brian Williams”: