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Child Miners Supplying Western Corporations



Above: Children mining gold in Mali, more beneficiaries of free trade

Once again, industry must be held legally accountable for their supply chains.

This week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a chance to do something about this. The OECD hosts a forum at its headquarters in Paris, assessing whether current sourcing of minerals meet the OECD’s own 2011 Due Diligence Guidance. The Guidance sets out five steps that companies need to take to ensure they do not contribute to serious human rights abuses, such as the worst forms of child labor. It applies not only to conflict regions, but also to “high-risk” areas with institutional weaknesses, such as Ghana.

So far, the OECD has not done enough to tackle child labor in minerals supply chains. Its focus has been on the important issue of conflict minerals, and the steps companies should take to source minerals from the conflict-torn Great Lakes region responsibly. The issue of child labor has been given far less attention and tangible action by the OECD, governments, or companies remains scant.

Human Rights Watch has documented the risks children face when they work in artisanal and small-scale gold mining. Children have died when mining pits have collapsed, suffered injury from accidents, and risked mercury poisoning. Mercury, a liquid metal used to attract gold particles during the processing of the gold ore, causes brain damage, heart and lung conditions, and other irreparable health damage. Work in mining also takes a toll on children’s education: child miners often find it difficult to attend school regularly, and sometimes drop out altogether.

Human Rights Watch research in Ghana, Mali, the Philippines, and Tanzania has found that governments and businesses are not doing enough to tackle child labor in mining. These countries have laws and government institutions to eliminate child labor, but the laws remain unenforced, and the institutions are weak. Businesses sometimes fail to do their due diligence to ensure that their supply chains are free from child labor. Many local gold traders do not check the labor conditions at the mining sites they source from, and sometimes even buy gold from child laborers. And so this tainted gold enters the supply chains of global companies. Around 15 percent of the world’s gold supply comes from artisanal and small-scale gold mines.

No one is saying that combating child labor in underdeveloped countries is easy. But the way to start is enforceable codes for supply chains.

Finally, the OECD and its member states need to sharpen their teeth. Voluntary codes of conduct and standards are not enough to achieve responsible sourcing by minerals companies. The OECD should create a mechanism to effectively monitor implementation of their Due Diligence Guidance, including reviewing it regularly and publicly. Member states should make human rights due diligence a legal requirement for all business sectors, such as is currently being considered by the French parliament, and vote for an international treaty on human rights and global supply chains at the International Labor Conference later this month.

This absolutely makes sense. Make human rights a legal requirement. Craft an international treaty that would cover global supply chains and pass it, which the U.S. almost certainly would reject because our current system of globalized capitalism escaped the United States in no small part so corporations could again profit on the labor of children after a century of activism in the United States largely ended that practice. But this is what must happen. Employers have the control over their supply chains they choose to have. They can send in monitors. They can allow public access to their sites. They can hire directly if they were to choose. But they don’t choose that because they profit off of employing kids. That has to stop.

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