Dar es Salaam – 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, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on August 28. The Tanzanian Government should curb child labour in small-scale mining, including at informal, unlicensed mines, and the World Bank and donor countries should support these efforts.
The 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. They 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, breathing dust, and carrying heavy loads. A 17-year-old boy, who survived a pit accident, told Human Rights Watch, “I thought I was dead, I was so frightened.”
“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 Human Rights Watch. “Tanzania and donors need to get these children out of the mines and into school or vocational training.”
Many children who work in mining are orphans or other vulnerable children who lack basic necessities and support. Human Rights Watch also found that girls on and around mining sites face sexual harassment, including pressure to engage in sex work. Some girls become victims of commercial sexual exploitation and risk contracting HIV or other sexually-transmitted infections.
Human Rights Watch visited 11 mining sites in Geita, Shinyanga and Mbeya regions, and interviewed more than 200 people, including 61 children working in small-scale gold mining. The employment of children in dangerous mining work is one of the worst forms of child labour under international agreements, to which Tanzania is a party.
“On paper, Tanzania has strong laws prohibiting child labour in mining, but the Government has done far too little to enforce them,” Morna said. “Labour inspectors need to visit both licensed and unlicensed mines regularly, and ensure employers face sanctions for using child labour.”
Child labourers, as well as children living near mining sites, are at serious risk of mercury poisoning. Mercury attacks the central nervous system and can cause lifelong disability to children, whose developing bodies are more easily affected by the heavy metal. The miners, including children, 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.
Most adult and child miners are unaware of these health risks. Health workers lack training and facilities and are not equipped to diagnose or treat mercury poisoning. Existing laws and initiatives on mercury have largely failed to reduce mercury use.
Tanzania has helped craft a new global treaty to reduce mercury exposure worldwide, which more than 140 governments agreed upon in January 2013. The Minamata Convention on Mercury, named for the site in Japan of a mercury poisoning disaster half a century ago, will be adopted in October near Minamata.
“Tanzania helped bring about the Minamata Convention on Mercury,” Morna said. “Now, to protect the future of its own people and of its own growing mining industry, it needs to take the lead to protect its children – by monitoring, testing, and treating them for mercury exposure and getting them out of the mines.”
Working in the mines interferes with children’s education. Children working in mining sometimes skip classes or drop out of school altogether. Teachers told Human Rights Watch that school attendance and performance decreased when a gold mine opened nearby. In addition, many adolescents seek full-time employment, including in mining, because they lack access to secondary school or vocational training.
A 15-year-old boy in the Geita district summed up the impact of mining on his life: “It is difficult to combine mining and school. I don’t get time to go through tutoring [which takes place on the weekends]. I wonder about the mine, it distracts me… One day… I fell sick [after mining and missed classes]. I had pain all over my body.”
The Tanzanian Government should expand access to secondary school and vocational training and improve child protection, Human Rights Watch said. The government and donors should provide financial and political backing for the new action plan on the most vulnerable children and include orphans from mining areas in the Tanzania Social Action Fund’s program of grants and conditional cash transfers to vulnerable populations.
The World Bank and other donors to the mining sector should also support steps to end child labour in mining and reduce the exposure of children and adults to mercury, Human Rights Watch said. For example, they should help children transition from work in unlicensed mines to schooling, and ensure that newly licensed mines do not use child labour. A current US $ 55 million World Bank project to support the mining sector does not directly address child labour.