Mining is among the most perilous forms of child labor. Global Health Africa contributor, Neha Ahmed, calls attention to the multitude of health hazards child gold miners face in Tanzania.
In August of 2013, a report by Human Rights Watch warned that thousands of children, some as young as eight years old, were working in Tanzania’s small scale gold mines. Tanzania is the fourth largest producer of gold in Africa and gold has recently overtaken tourism as the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner. Despite the present laws prohibiting child labor, the practice remains widespread and children working in small scale gold mines continue to lead precarious lives with ongoing exposure to a multitude of health hazards.
Mining is among the most perilous forms of child labor. The health threats faced by children working in gold mines are numerous including musculoskeletal injuries from carrying heavy loads, injuries due to a lack of safety equipment, working in mine shafts which can collapse suddenly, and exposure to toxic chemicals such as mercury. Among child gold miners, exposure to mercury can occur in a number of different ways and carries with it a range of health risks, both short and long-term. Initially, elemental mercury is used to extract gold from the ore in which it is embedded. The next step in the gold extraction process requires the burning of the mercury-gold amalgam in order to purify the gold, which is then washed off with water. These processes result in mercury contamination both as run-off that pollutes water sources and as toxic vapor that can be inhaled by miners and the local community, causing either immediate or chronic toxic exposures for the child miners as well as their families and communities.
Mercury poisoning is known to cause a number of immediate detrimental health effects including blistering, swelling and fatigue. Research on the effects of mercury exposure has also provided evidence of long-term health damage including lowered fertility, heart disease, respiratory disease, musculoskeletal problems and poisoning. Moreover, mercury poisoning is particularly harmful to developing fetuses and young children since it can permanently impair cognitive functions and result in developmental deficits such as IQ loss and delayed speech.
In 2009, the Tanzanian government launched both the National Action Plan for the Elimination of Child Labor as well as The National Strategic Plan for Mercury Management. Tanzania also played a positive role in pushing for the Minamata Convention on Mercury, an international treaty regulating the use of the substance. However, as the Human Rights Watch report acknowledges, enforcement of these action plans and treaties remain an issue. Inspections of mining sites are sporadic and inconsistent, with the relevant government ministries lacking the resources required to enforce laws.
In addition, there is a failure to critically assess and attend to the underlying socioeconomic vulnerabilities that pave the way for precarious artisanal mining and the involvement of child labor in the activity. Working with mining communities immediately to improve working conditions and encourage safer workplace practices is important, as is enforcing adherence to child labor laws. However, for sustained and broad based changes to occur, it remains critical to take action on extensive issues such as landlessness among rural communities, improving access to education particularly secondary education, providing greater opportunities for vocational training, and providing support programs and transition opportunities to vulnerable children. This video shows the dangers that child gold miners encounter in Tanzania’s gold mines.