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Plight of Tanzania's child miners exposed

Human Rights Watch says thousands of children toil at unlicensed and informal gold mines.

Last Modified: 29 Aug 2013 09:50
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Tanzania's child labour laws are not enforced by the government, critics say [Justin Purefoy/Human Rights Watch]

Nairobi, Kenya - Although he has only recently become a teenager, Richard Paul does the work of an adult. He swings a pick-axe into the red earth and carries clumps of clay with his bare hands at a makeshift gold mine in southwest Tanzania.

He seldom sees the inside of a classroom, but this 13-year-old knows that mining is a risky job. He was buried when a pit wall collapsed above him and has breathed in the toxic mercury fumes that are released during gold extraction.

"One day, while I was digging, my friend told me to get out of the pit. I told him to wait a minute because I wanted to finish up," said the teen. "That's when the mine collapsed on me. I fell down and was knocked unconscious. My friends dug me out of the rubble and took me to the hospital. I was unconscious till 4am.”

Paul mines for gold alongside other children and adult labourers in the Mbeya region, which is famous for a gold rush at the beginning of the 20th century. His family has left him to fend for himself and this work enables him to buy textbooks for school.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch says he is one among thousands of children who toil at unlicensed and informal gold mines across the west and south of the poor but rapidly-developing country of 48 million people.

Health risks

During visits to 11 improvised mines last year, researchers found children as young as eight working in hazardous conditions. They dig and drill in deep, unstable pits, work underground for shifts of up to 24 hours and carry heavy sacks of gold ore.

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.

- Janine Morna, researcher and child labour expert

As well as risks from falling tools and pit walls, young workers face hidden threats. They inhale dust and the fumes from mercury, which is mixed with ore and heated to separate out the gold. Mercury vapours attack the central nervous system and can cause brain damage.

Janine Morna, a researcher and child labour expert, said that 90 percent of some rural communities dig for the precious yellow metal. Families are so poor that sending children to work in mines for between 1,000-20,000 shillings ($0.61 to $12.28) a day is "a way of life”, she said.

"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 Morna. "Tanzania need to get these children out of the mines and into school or vocational training.”

Business is booming in Africa's fourth-largest gold producer. Large mines are owned by multinationals that follow global labour standards, but locally-run "artisanal" mines hire children and have bad safety records, Morna said. While Tanzania has child labour laws, the government fails to monitor mines effectively, critics say.

Officially, small-scale mining yielded about 1.6 tons of gold last year, worth some $85m. Labourers remain poor, but mine owners, traders and exporters take cuts from a business that feeds such markets as the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, China, South Africa and the UK.

"We are not calling for a boycott of Tanzanian gold," said Morna. "Artisanal mining is an important industry and a boycott would harm more than it would help. But it's important for consumers to demand child labour-free gold.”

The Swahili-speaking country, which is evenly split between Christians, Muslims and those with indigenous beliefs, is witnessing annual economic growth of more than 6 percent, partly thanks to exports of tin, phosphates, iron ore, coal, diamonds and gold.

Education is key

Veronica Simba, a spokeswoman for Tanzania's Ministry of Energy and Minerals, noted the challenges they face in curbing child labour, and said that the government is working with the World Bank to improve safety and labour standards at the mines.

"The government initiated educational programmes for the artisanal miners to make them fully understand the industry - including their rights, obligations, health matters, safety, and so on," she said. "Through education, we are sure there is going to be a great positive change in the mining industry, both economically and socially.”

Nadine Osseiran, a child labour expert for the UN's International Labour Organization, said local-run monitoring schemes involving Tanzanian officials, religious figures and activists are effective. As many as 50,000 children have been spared from mines, farms and other workplaces this past decade, but cash shortfalls have prevented these schemes from being rolled out nationwide.

"The mining industry should pay its adult workers more," added Osseiran. "Workers in the informal mining sector are totally exploited. If they earned a decent income, they would be able to support their families and their children would go to school.”

The child labourers of today are the unskilled, poor adults of tomorrow - who will work in exploitative conditions and never get out of poverty.

- Nadine Osseiran, UN's International Labour Organization

A byproduct of poverty

Problems in Tanzania are echoed across much of the developing world, she added. About 1 million children labour in mines globally - just part of the 115 million youngsters that work in construction, farming, military and other hazardous industries.

The international community is "lagging behind" its target to free all children from abusive jobs by 2016, Osseiran added, calling on governments, industrialists and labour groups to renew their commitment at a child labour conference in Brazil in October.

"If child labour is not eliminated then we cannot break the cycle of poverty," Osseiran told Al Jazeera. "The child labourers of today are the unskilled, poor adults of tomorrow - who will work in exploitative conditions and never get out of poverty.”

In Tanzania's tropical northwest, the child-focused charity Plan has worked in the city of Geita since 2000. The locals  work in mines and graze livestock to make ends meet. Plan sponsors 5,790 children in the region where the average person earns $100 a year.

Its country director, Jorgen Haldorsen, estimates that about one-third of local children work and he wants to get as many as possible into classrooms. Sending investigators to monitor children in mines will not alone solve the problem, he said.

"This is a poor area and supplementing the family income is why young people work in mines," he said. "It's not a problem with one solution. It's also about creating opportunities for young people and other ways to generate an income."

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

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Al Jazeera
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