The international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, HRW, warned children as young as eight years old are working in small-scale gold mines in Tanzania, a job that is putting their health and even their lives at risk.
The dangers faced by the children were highlighted in a report recently released by HRW after an extensive investigation into the lives of children who work in small-scale and informal mines.
“We found that there are thousands of children working in these small-scale gold mines and they do work in very hazardous conditions. They risk injury, for example, when working in very deep unstable pits which sometimes collapse. And we interviewed some children who were actually themselves involved in accidents,” explained Juliane Kippenberg, a senior researcher for HRW.
She also pointed out that the children carry loads that are far too heavy for their young age, causing damage to their spines, and the children are exposed to the toxic metal mercury when separating the gold from the ore.
Mercury, Kippenberg said, is cheap and easy to use in small-scale mining, and is widely used throughout the world in informal mining operations. With little training, the child miners mix the metal, using their bare hands into a ground up ore and then it becomes an amalgam of mercury and gold, which is then burned. The child workers unwittingly inhale the highly toxic vapor as it is burned.
“The burned mercury is highly toxic. The mercury attacks the central nervous system. It can cause long term damage, including brain damage, heart conditions, lung conditions and a variety of other health problems. It can cause life-long disabilities and it can potentially even kill,” said Kippenberg.
The report also highlighted the fact that the majority of child miners investigated are orphans searching for a way to support themselves.
The HRW report notes that Tanzania has laws prohibiting child labor in mining, though they are not enforced.
Kippenberg said there are some programs underway to help protect child laborers, but most of them are still being established, and often do not reach the orphans in the mining areas to the degree that they should.
“There is really an enormous need for much stronger programming and much stronger support for these vulnerable children,” stated Kippenberg.
She added that HRW has been in contact with various Tanzanian ministries, in particular the ministries of labor; energy and minerals; health and social welfare; and the ministry of community development. The organization urges the government as well as the international community to support steps to end child labor in mining, as well as allocate additional resources towards ensuring more checkups and inspections in the informal mining sector.