Ghana urged to end child labour in gold mines

Ghana urged to end child labour in gold mines

Human Rights Watch says thousands of child workers are at risk for injury, poisoning and death in small and unlicensed gold mines in Ghana. (Credit: HRW | Juliane Koppenberg)

Ghana's mining industry has been benefiting from child labour in dangerous, unlicensed gold operations and should better enforce its laws to prevent this to keep happening, a New York-based rights group said Wednesday.

In an 82-page report, Human Rights Watch unveils how thousands of children, mostly between the ages of 15 and 17, are still working in Ghana’s gold operations, violating international laws that ban child labour in hazardous industries as well as Ghana’s own Children’s Act, which prevents those under 18 from working in mines.

What is worse, says the group, the use of children as young as nine is still too common in the country’s mostly illegal small-scale mines, which account for about one third of Ghana’s mining industry.

With the lack of "due diligence" and many foreign companies buying gold from the country, which is Africa’s second-largest producer of the precious metal, child rights and labour stand poorly regulated, the report argues.

“Ghana should lead the way in Africa by developing a comprehensive strategy for safe, professional, and child-labour-free gold mining,” said the study's lead researcher Juliane Kippenberg in a statement.

Mercury, dust, heavy loads

One of the main problems is the use of mercury, which is used to separate gold from other minerals easily and cheaply. In high dosage, the element can attack the central nervous system and can cause brain damage, which is particularly harmful to children, as their systems are still developing, causing irreversible effects.

“There are other problems, too. Some boys carry extremely heavy loads and this causes really strong pain for them, but also can obviously lead to long-term spinal damage,” HRW Senior researcher Juliane Kippenberg notes.

And then there’s the dust.

“Some of the children that we interviewed complained about coughs and other respiratory problems and that they were spitting out blood,” she said.

Ghana’s gold industry employs between a half million and one million people. Last year, the sector produced about 40 tonnes of gold worth more than $1.7 billion.

Ghana urged to end child labour in gold mines

Main dangers of using children in illegal gold mines. (Graph courtesy of Human Rights Watch)