DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Children as young as eight are working in Tanzania’s small-scale gold mines and face serious risks to their health and lives from mercury poisoning and pit collapses, a new report by Human Rights Watch said.
The report by the global rights watchdog urged the Tanzanian government, donor countries and the World Bank to curb the worst forms of child labour.
Thousands of school-age children are digging and drilling in deep pits in small licensed and illegal mines, desperately searching for gold, it said in the report, Toxic Toil: Child Labor and Mercury Exposure in Tanzania’s Small-Scale Gold Mines.
“Tanzanian boys and girls are lured to the gold mines in the hopes of a better life, but find themselves stuck in a dead-end cycle of danger and despair,” said Janine Morna, children’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Most children who work in mining are orphans who lack necessary support, the report said, adding that girls living around mining sites face sexual harassment and exploitation, which expose them to risks of contracting sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS.
“A lot of men approach me… always showing me money…. Sex work is very common…. I had a friend who is doing that. Most of those are working in the bar. Sometimes they stay here [on the mine]… they sacrifice themselves in the forest. They create a hut and stay,” a 15-year-old girl working in one mining district said in the report.
DROPPING OUT OF SCHOOL
Although laws in Tanzania - Africa’s fourth largest gold producer - criminalises child labour and prohibits children under 18 from working in mines and other sites deemed hazardous, the report said thousands of children work in the mines and sometimes skip classes or drop out of school altogether.
School performance and attendance decreased whenever a gold mine opened nearby and children sought full-time jobs, it said.
“It is difficult to combine mining and school. I don’t get time to go through tutoring. I wonder about the mine, it distracts me…. One day, I fell sick and missed classes. I had pain all over my body,” a 15-year-old boy was quoted as saying in the report.
The report urged the government and donors to provide political and financial support for a new action plan for the most vulnerable children from mining areas, as part of the country’s Social Action Fund, which offers grants and conditional cash transfers to vulnerable populations.
PUNISHING CHILDREN’S EMPLOYERS
Asked about the report, Tanzanian Minister for Labour and Employment Gaudensia Kabaka said that child labour was a huge problem, and the government was using different approaches to address it. She said she would look into the Human Rights Watch allegations.
“As a government, we are trying our very best to sensitise the people to the effects of child labour,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Everybody must reject exploitation of children, and we must collectively decide to end the illegal practice.”
Human Rights Watch said it visited 11 mining sites in Geita, Shinyanga and Mbeya regions, and interviewed more than 200 people, including 61 children working in small-scale gold mining.
According to the report, child labourers, who mix mercury with crushed ground ore and burn the resulting gold in the mining sites, are at serious risk of mercury poisoning. Most adults and child miners are unaware of the health risks, and health workers lack training and facilities to diagnose and treat mercury poisoning.
“On paper, Tanzania has strong laws prohibiting child labour in mining, but the government has done far too little to enforce them,” said Morna, of Human Rights Watch. “Labour inspectors need to visit both licensed and unlicensed mines regularly, and ensure employers face sanctions for using child labour.”