Cazzie Reyes is a Researcher for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's Anti-Trafficking Programs. She graduated from Bradley University with a Bachelor's degree in International Studies and a minor in Women's Studies.
Whether a trinket from a department store or a custom-made diamond encrusted piece, jewelry is an accessory constantly produced to meet the demands of fast fashion and luxury goods consumers alike. Behind the glitter and sparkle, however, are the forced child laborers toiling in mines to produce these beautiful items. This month’s How It’s Made post digs deep into the gold and diamond mines enslaving children.
Not all child labor is considered forced child labor or slave labor. The International Labor Organization’s Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor defines the worst forms of child labor. These forms include the use of children (anyone under 18 years old) in the commercial sex industry, armed conflict, illicit or criminal activity and in industries that harm children’s health, safety and morals. In the United States, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 gives stipulations for legal child labor but prohibits oppressive child labor. Oppressive child labor includes mining and hazardous work that negatively affect children’s health and well-being.
Because of the health and safety concerns associated with the work, the use of children in gold and diamond mining falls under the worst forms of child labor and oppressive child labor categories.
According to the United Nations, between 15 to 20 million individuals work in the gold mining industry. Child labor often occurs in the artisanal and small-scale mining operations (ASM) that take place in poorer areas. Unlike industrial mines, ASMs are rife with child labor since they are not as heavily regulated. About 20% of the gold mined every year come from ASMs.
In Burkina Faso, Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, orphaned children spend 12 to 15 hours a day panning for gold. In Mali, Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 20,000 children work in gold mining. Adult miners dig holes at least 20 feet below ground level. Using picks, the adult workers chip away at the rock and fill bags with pieces of rock that may or may not contain gold. The children stay above ground and pull up these heavy bags, day in and day out. Carrying these loads often results in back pain and spinal injuries. At the end of the work day, the children are not paid. Instead, they bring home a bag of rocks with the hope that there’s a piece of gold somewhere in the pile of dirt and debris.
Next to the mines and, at times, right outside their homes, people refine gold ore by burning the mercury and gold together. The vapor that emerges attacks the nervous system, leads to intoxication and may even cause death. Once the mercury is burned off, the piece of gold that’s left is ready to be sold. Middle men purchase the gold at an incredibly low price.
In the diamond mines of Angola, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, child laborers don’t fare much better. Though the brutal civil wars in those countries have ceased, militias and rebel groups still control most of the mines. Members from these groups force children to work and threaten those who refuse with beatings and death threats.
In Sierra Leone, children typically suffer from malaria because they are immersed in shallow waters for the entire work day. Though paid $1.00-$2.00 a day, these children suffer even more as they face health problems and are unable to go to school.
Unfortunately, boycotting diamonds from these problematic source countries may only exacerbate the problem. In places like the Congo, where a tenth of the population earns their income from these mines, a boycott would be a death blow to their economy and livelihood.
Jewelers can purchase their raw materials more responsibly. For example, they can buy from sellers in Botswana and Namibia, two African countries that enforce strong labor and environmental standards. Consumers looking to make a big jewelry purchase should look at retailers that source conflict-free diamonds.