Between 20,000 and 40,000 children work in artisanal gold mines in Mali, Africa’s third-largest producer of the precious metal, Human Rights Watch said in a report Tuesday.
In a statement, HRW said that “children as young as six dig mining shafts, work underground, pull up heavy weights of ore, and carry, crush, and pan ore.”
It also said that many children “work with mercury, a toxic substance, to separate the gold from the ore. Mercury attacks the central nervous system and is particularly harmful to children.”
HRW children’s rights researcher Juliane Kippenberg said children carried loads heavier than their own weight, climbed into unstable shafts, and touched and inhaled mercury, one of the most toxic substances on earth.
Children interviewed complained of regular pain in the back, head, neck, arms or joints, as well as coughing and respiratory diseases.
“One boy about six years old described the pain he felt when digging shafts with a pickaxe for hours on end. Another boy said that ‘everything hurts’ when he comes home after a day’s work underground.”
Many children worked alongside their parents to supplement meagre incomes, while others migrated to the mines by themselves and ended up exploited and abused by relatives or strangers who take their pay.
Some girls are sexually abused.
Children come to the mines from other parts of Mali, as well as Guinea, Burkina Faso and other neighbouring countries, HRW said.
Citing figures from Mali’s ministry of mines, it said the country exported about four metric tonnes of gold every year, worth about $218 million (more than 162 million euros) at November 2011 prices.
Most is exported to Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates.
The rights group urged the government to implement existing strict laws on child labour and compulsory education, but added that “local officials often benefit from artisanal gold mining and have little interest in addressing child labour.”
It also urged businesses that have not yet done so, “to put in place procedures to ensure their gold has not been mined by children.”