National Consumers League

How American consumers can help stop the poisoning of children in Mali, Africa


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By Reid Maki, Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards Did you happen to see Brian Williams’ news show Rock Center last week? It featured a chilling report about child gold miners in Mali, Africa. As many as 20,000 kids are estimated to work in Mali’s artisanal mines, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which released a report, “A Poisonous Mix: Child Labor, Mercury, and Artisanal Gold Mining in Mali.” HRW, a member of the Child Labor Coalition, which is co-chaired by NCL, found that kids as young as six years old “dig mining shafts, work underground, pull up heavy weights of ore, and carry, crush and pan ore.” As if this backbreaking labor wasn’t bad enough, “many children also work with mercury, a toxic substance, to separate the gold from the ore.” Mercury, as HRW notes, attacks the central nervous system and is particularly harmful to children. “These children literally risk life and limb,” said Juliane Kippenberg, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They carry loads heavier than their own weight, climb into unstable shafts, and touch and inhale mercury, one of the most toxic substances on earth.” Many of the child workers and adult workers have no idea that Mercury is poisonous. The children described the horrible aches and pains that the work leaves them with; one child commented, “Everything hurts.” Apparently, the gold shafts collapse with some regularity. NBC reporter Richard Engel talked to miners who told him a shaft had collapsed the previous day, killing one miner. Many children are not paid wages for their labor. Some receive bags of dirt which may or may not have any gold dust in them. NBC found that many children work instead of going to school. Unfortunately, American consumers who buy gold are unwittingly abetting the problem. The Malian gold passes through several middlemen and ends up in jewelry and other items around the world, including the U.S. In Britain, a fair trade activist and jeweler named Greg Valerio  worked with the Fairtrade Foundation to help consumers be sure that the gold they are purchasing is free from child labor and the most egregious labor abuses. Valerio is now trying to replicate the system in the U.S. but he needs our help. The next time you go into a jewelry store, ask if the gold is “fair trade” gold and where it came from. “One of the biggest problems we have now is that the consumer doesn’t go into a jewelry store and ask, ‘Can you trace this gold?’  If the consumer would do that, we would see a shift in the sector,” said Marc Choyt, a New Mexico jeweler who makes jewelry out of recycled precious metals. “Absolutely dirty gold is making it into the United States and jewelers who don’t have a traceable supply chain can’t tell you where it’s coming from,” Choyt said. For more information, check out HRW’s press release here.