Mother’s Day, therefore, is a great chance to point out one of the great paradoxes of the diamond jewelry industry. Wedding and engagement rings often symbolize the creation of a loving, stable homes in which children can thrive. And yet, those same rings are often produced using child labor.
Globally, about one million children work as artisanal miners, the kind of miners who mine for precious gems and metals independent of large companies. The vast majority of these children are gold miners, but many are diamond miners. Still more children work in the sweatshops, mostly in India, in which diamonds are cut and polished before being mounted on engagement rings. Children in these occupations often work for little pay and in dangerous conditions. Many never get a chance to attend school.
A Human Rights Watch report from last year tells the story of Rahim T., a 13-year-old who lives in Tanzania, Africa’s fourth largest gold producer. Rahim T. began working in the gold mines when he was 11 because his family did not provide him enough to eat. Not long after he began mining, he was involved in a pit accident that buried him to his waist and left him unconscious. He spent a week in a hospital, but afterward went back to mining.
Rahim T. obtains gold by adding liquid mercury to ground-up gold ore, placing the gold-mercury mixture on a soda cap, and burning away the mercury. This process, known as mercury amalgamation, is a simple and effective way to extract gold from ore. Mercury, however, is a toxic substance that can cause brain damage, organ failure, and death. Children are especially vulnerable to mercury poisoning. Human Rights Watch researchers were the first to tell Rahim T. that touching mercury or breathing in mercury fumes could be dangerous.
What can be done to get children like Rahim T. out of the mines? The problem of child labor in gold and diamond mining can’t be separated from the broader issue of child labor in other industries. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 115 million children ages 5 to 17 work in dangerous jobs in sectors including agriculture, mining, and construction. To lower this number, governments will need to do a better job with enforcement. Most countries, including Tanzania, already have laws on the books against child labor; they just don’t yet have the will or capacity to enforce those laws. It would also help children if governments did a better job phasing out mercury use in gold mining.
But the jewelry industry itself also should be actively involved in eliminating child labor from its supply chain. Jewelers need to recognize that gold or diamonds mined by children don’t make very good symbols of the love between two parents. Most of all, the values that we celebrate on Mother’s Day—in particular, our reverence for those who treat children with love, kindness, and concern for their well-being—need to become part of jewelry industry’s own way of doing business.