Labor practices in gold mining are often far from responsible. Most gold miners work in dangerous conditions and earn so little money that they live in poverty. The most vulnerable gold miners are the youngest. Globally, about 600,000 children are gold miners.
Although many gold miners dream of riches, for most people gold mining leads to nothing but grinding poverty. About 15 million people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are artisanal, or small-scale, gold miners. These miners use simple techniques to mine for gold, such as panning in riverbeds or digging makeshift tunnels. Unfortunately, very few of them earn a decent living.
Gold discoveries are sporadic and uncertain. The gold that is found may be split among workers or shared with village elders. Because most artisanal gold mining is unregulated, miners have few legal protections. Most lack the bargaining power to get a fair price for their gold. As the gold industry earns record profits, many gold miners struggle to meet basic needs like food and shelter.
Gold miners working for large companies can be exploited too. Wages and working conditions can be abysmal, and miners are often prohibited from organizing to defend their rights. In South Africa, some gold miners working for major corporations earn such low pay that they live in shantytowns with no electricity or running water in their homes.
Hundreds of thousands of gold miners worldwide are slowly poisoning themselves. Mercury is the gold extraction agent most often used by artisanal gold miners. But mercury is a toxic substance, and miners regularly exposed to it may suffer health problems including kidney disease, respiratory ailments, and neurological damage.
In addition, because small-scale gold mining is poorly regulated and many miners lack safety equipment and expertise, accidents occur all the time. Landslides and tunnel collapses can injure miners or bury them alive in a single moment. In 2013, a tragic gold mine collapse in the Darfur region of Sudan killed 100 gold miners. Smaller accidents happen frequently too.
Safety is also a problem at gold mines run by large companies. In 2014, nine workers at a South African gold mine died when a rock fall triggered a fire. Thousands of former gold miners in South Africa also now suffer from silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling dust that leads to tuberculosis.
No Dirty Gold
About 600,000 children, some as young as four years old, work as artisanal gold miners. These children suffer immeasurably from a practice that exploits them and violates their rights.
Children do many of the same tasks as adults: panning in streams, digging tunnels, and hauling and crushing ore. But because their bodies are still developing, they are more likely to be injured, sickened, or killed. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of mercury, used in the gold extraction process. When child miners are exposed to mercury for prolonged periods, they may develop neurological damage and other serious health problems.
Child laborers often receive lower pay than adults for the same work. Some receive no pay at all. Many children also work full-time and do not attend school. Their right to an education denied, many of these children will have little choice but to keep working in the mines as adults.
International Labor Organization
International Labor Organization
China is a fast growing producer of gold. Output has risen so quickly that in 2007 China passed South Africa as the world’s largest gold producer. But if China has begun to lead in output, it continues to lag in safety.
Reports of gold mining accidents in China repeatedly surface in the international press. In 2013, a massive landslide at a gold mine in Tibet buried 83 mine workers. Across all types of mining in China, including coal mining, more than 1,000 people die in accidents each year.
As China’s economy grows, mine safety must improve if thousands of needless injuries and deaths are to be avoided. Environmental protection will also need to be a priority to prevent the devastating environmental consequences of dirty gold mining.
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