A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) reveals that thousands of Tanzanian children—some as young as eight years old—are working illegally in many of the country’s unlicensed gold mines. Despite laws that prohibit child labor, the young miners venture deep underground to drill, dig and transport gold to the surface. In addition to the risk children have from accidents and mine collapses they also face long-term health issues from exposure to mercury and mine dust.
In most cases, poverty induces the children to seek work in the mines. With the money that they earn from their work, most kids say they purchase necessities such as food, clothes, rent and school supplies. Child labor is used in many other sectors of Tanzania’s economy, including agriculture, domestic work and fishing. In 2006, a government survey revealed that almost twenty percent of children between the ages of 5 and 17 are involved in some form of labor.
In 2009, Tanzania developed a National Action Plan for the Elimination of Child Labor. According to the Plan, the following factors contribute to Tanzania’s child labor problem: poverty, access to education and employment, and weak enforcement of social protections and labor laws. Though measures have been enacted to reduce child labor, there is no evidence to suggest that there has been a reduction in the number of children employed by small and unlicensed gold mines.
Tanzania is the fourth-largest producer of gold in the world. The mining process begins by digging the ore out of the ground and carrying it to a processing area where it is crushed and sluiced. To separate the gold from other rocks and minerals, miners use liquid mercury, which attracts and amalgamates the gold particles. The final step is to heat the amalgam, which evaporates the mercury and leaves the pure gold.
Beyond the obvious dangers associated with underground mining, long-term exposure to mercury presents a serious health hazard. Mercury exposure adversely affects the central nervous system, causing sensory impairment, lack of coordination, memory loss and tremors. Mercury poisoning concerns not only the Tanzanian child miners but also people in surrounding villages as vapors and byproducts enter the atmosphere and groundwater.
The Tanzanian government is aware of child labor abuses in these unlicensed gold mines. With international organizations like Human Rights Watch casting light on the issue, pressure to curb the abuses is likely to increase. But unless economic conditions change for people in rural areas, it will be difficult to thwart the need to survive.
One man who was interviewed by Human Rights Watch told the organization, “There is no way out… this is how we survive.” Nearby, the man’s daughter was playing in the ashy remains of what was once the mercury-gold amalgam.
— Daniel Bonasso