Closing my eyes, I readily envision the radiant smile belonging to an orphaned eleven-year-old Tanzanian girl whom I have sponsored for over a year. She briefly mentions a nearby gold mine in one her first correspondences describing her Chunya district village. I imagine a bustling community teeming with excitement at the prospect of increased revenue. However, reality paints an entirely different picture as the discovery of gold in these poverty-stricken villages carries an extremely dangerous price tag. The small-scale gold mines throughout the Chunya district utilize hazardous child labor tactics, including exposure to potentially lethal mercury and traversing unstable mine shafts. The heinous child labor practices of small-scale gold mines in the Chunya district of Tanzania adversely affect children’s physical and mental health, and actions need to be undertaken to reduce these child labor customs. In order to help eliminate the hazardous child labor practices in Chunya mining, the Elon community should offer its support and promotion of World Against Child Labor Day and Global March Organization, as well as initiate a collaboration with other universities to research making non-mercury gold processing more affordable and efficient.
Gold mining is an extremely important aspect of the economy in Africa, accounting for five percent of the country’s gross national product, and Tanzania is the fourth largest producer of gold in Africa (Toxic 25). The large-scale mines are licensed and closely monitored for safety and child labor practices, but the small-scale mines are generally unlicensed and unmonitored (Toxic 28). As a result, poor work conditions abound, and the use of child labor is widespread. Throughout the continent, the small-scale mines produce ten percent of African gold (Toxic 25), and the gold production in the Chunya district of my sponsored child is entirely from these small-scale mines (United Republic 133). In order to mine legally in Tanzania, the mine owner must apply for a Primary Mining License for each mine. The license holds the owner responsible for the safety of the mine and for complying with the Law of the Child Act which prohibits hiring anyone younger than eighteen years old. Few owners actually apply for the license because the cost is prohibitive and large scale mining companies impede the process (Toxic 28). In spite of the lure of gold, Tanzania is an extremely poor country, ranking 152nd in a United Nations Report (Toxic 26). The international poverty line is equivalent to $1.25 per day, and approximately sixty-eight percent of the Tanzanian population lives below that level (Toxic 26). Unlicensed, unregulated, and unmonitored small-scale mining abounds as a result of the cost of licensure and maintaining legal mines.
Imagine a worker climbing down a narrow dirt shaft, using hands and feet like a rock climber, or at best being lowered by a rope. Next imagine crawling or crouching along a dark mine shaft that can collapse any moment, breathing stale air mixed with gas fumes, only to return hauling a heavy load of rocks in a sack tied on his back. Finally, imagine that worker is only thirteen years old. Mine owners in the Chunya district of Tanzania readily utilize such child labor. The International Labour Office (ILO) Convention No. 138 defines the minimum age for employment based upon the type of work involved. The age is eighteen for hazardous work, fifteen for ordinary work, and thirteen for light work (Children 3). Countries that ratify these recommendations may increase the minimum age, but developing countries such as Tanzania can decrease the age for ordinary and light work by one year (Children 3). The ILO Convention No. 182 requires without exception that countries take action against and prohibit children from working in any manner “which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children” (Children 3-4).
Unfortunately, the small-scale mines strongly rely upon child labor to keep costs at a minimum. Extreme poverty plays a significant role in leading children to work as well. Orphaned children and children of a single parent are especially prone to seek work opportunities in the gold mines. In fact, an International Labour Office study states that almost fifty-four percent of the children who work fulltime in Tanzania are orphans or have an absent father (Toxic 32). According to Janine Morna, a Human Rights Watch expert, “Tanzanian boys and girls are lured to the gold mines in the hopes of a better life, but find themselves stuck on a dead-end cycle of danger and despair” (Sanchez). The children use their wages to help themselves or their families for basic needs like clothing, food, and school supplies (Toxic 32). In the Toxic Toil report, Rahim, a thirteen-year-old boy of the Chunya district, describes how he began working at the mines when he was eleven because he was usually home alone, hungry, and in need of money and food (Toxic 5). Tanzania has approximately three million orphans (Toxic 32), and given the poverty level and prevalence of orphaned children, child labor is readily available.
Hazardous child labor practices are abundant in Tanzania. Altogether, 27.9 percent of Tanzanian children between five and fourteen years of age work (Tanzania). The country is within the region of Africa that has the highest incidence of children working in hazardous conditions worldwide, with 15.1 percent of the children in the region working in such conditions (Children 8). The work involved in unlicensed, small-scale mining carries many risks, including working without safety gear, exposure to alcohol and drugs, and sexual exploitation (Tanzania). Two of the primary risks are exposure to mercury and the potential for physical injury.
Mercury is an integral part of the small-scale mining process. The powder of ground rock carried out of the mines is mixed with water (Toxic 27). Mercury is then added and swirled by hand because the mercury attracts gold particles and creates a mercury-gold amalgam in a process called amalgamation (Toxic 27). The amalgam is subsequently burned to evaporate the mercury and leave the gold behind (Toxic 27). This process is done at the mine site as well as at home. Rahim describes how he takes bags of the ground ore home, mixes the mercury with ground ore, and burns the amalgam in a soda cap over a flame (Toxic 5). The World Health Organization lists mercury within its top ten list of chemicals of major public health concern. Mercury exposure is potentially life threatening, and even minute quantities adversely affect child development in the uterus and in early life (Mercury). It adversely affects the nervous, immune, and digestive systems, and can also damage the eyes, skin, lungs, and kidneys (Mercury). Mercury is especially deleterious to the nervous system and harms development, specifically involving memory, attention, fine motor skills, cognitive thinking, language, and visual spatial skills (Mercury). Vapor exposure also causes headaches, insomnia, and tremors (Mercury). As a general rule, children who work at the gold mines are not informed of the dangers of inhaling, ingesting, or absorbing mercury. One child confirms in the Toxic Toil report that he was not made aware of the harm until the Toxic Toil interview (5). With all the risks of mercury exposure, limiting or eliminating the use of mercury in the mining process and educating potential child workers are of utmost importance.
Rahim also relates a personal story of the second major risk of working in the small-scale Chunya gold mine, physical injury. Soon after he began working at the age of eleven, a mine shaft collapsed on him up to the level of his chest. His co-workers eventually dug him out of the pit, but he was knocked unconscious and had internal injuries requiring a week stay in the hospital. He was scared to return to work, but did not see any other choice to make money to feed himself (Toxic 5). The risk of injury is high in any mine, but especially in the small-scale gold mines of Chunya, Tanzania, which lack regulations and monitoring.
Knowing the depth and dangers of child labor in small-scale gold mining within Chunya, Tanzania, what can we do within the Elon community? Ultimately, the only way to significantly reduce the child labor practices is for the Tanzanian government to formally recognize the problem and take action accordingly. Elon can indirectly help by placing pressure at the international level by supporting organizations which increase awareness of the problem. One such event is the World Against Child Labor Day, which happens June 12th each year (Education). The program was initiated in 2002 by the ILO (Education). This day is held in countries throughout the world and has done an enormous job in educating the public in their respective countries. Last year, the focus of the presentation on World Against Child Labor Day by the International Initiative on Exploitative Child Labor, IIECL, in Washington, DC, was a feature film entitled “Fisher of Kids” about child slavery in the Ghanaian fishing industry (USA). Elon students should petition to have IIECL focus on the hazardous child mining practices in Tanzania for this year’s event. The timing would be appropriate given the focus of the problem this year with the Human Rights Watch report, “Toxic Toil,” published in August, 2013.
Another example of a non-profit organization promoting social awareness against child labor is the Global March Against Child Labour. Globalmarch.org states that the organization initiated a march across the globe that began in Manila on January 18, 1998, and ended in Geneva on June 1, 1998. Geneva was chosen as the final destination because the ILO Conference was being held there. The concerns raised by the march helped influence the drafting of the previously mentioned ILO Convention 182. More than seven million individuals were involved in the walk and promoted awareness across 103 countries. The Global March organization continues to encourage member countries to accept and ratify the Convention, and 177 of the 185 ILO countries have done so. Partners of the Global March organization throughout the world also continue to lobby governments in their respective regions (How). As with the World Against Child Labor Day, Elon should petition Global March to lobby Tanzania against the hazardous child labor practices in Chunya. Flyers can be posted promoting the events. As a dancer, I could also approach the Performing Arts Department about dedicating a performance to promote awareness.
In addition to promoting social awareness, Elon students and faculty can help limit the hazards of mercury in the mining process. Several other non-mercury methods exist to help with gold extraction, but the cost is often prohibitive for the small mines. According to the United States Department of Labor, there are seventeen schools in the United States with degrees in mining (MSHA). Elon should contact those schools, as well as universities offering chemical engineering, to research methods to efficiently and economically extract gold without mercury. If resources are available, Elon could promote such research on campus as well. Eliminating mercury in the gold mining process will not only benefit the workers, but also reduce the risk of increased mercury concentrations in the surrounding environment. Elon students and faculty can also take advantage of social media by creating a dedicated website, raising awareness of the research projects, promoting support for the World Against Child Labor Day and Global March Organization, and inviting other colleges and universities to support the initiatives.
Elon University is an amazing community committed to outreach and community service. By supporting and petitioning appropriate organizations, promoting awareness, as well as researching methods of mercury-free gold extraction, the Elon community has the potential to reduce the child labor customs and the associated health risks in the Chunya region of Tanzania. The students and faculty of Elon University, acting in concert with other colleges and universities, can play an integral part in saving the children’s lives. We have the power to make a difference. I look forward to writing back to my sponsored child in Tanzania, informing her of Elon’s efforts, and preserving an orphaned girl’s smile in the process.
Children in Hazardous Work: What We Know. What We Need to Do. International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). Publication. Geneva: International Labour Office, 2011. International Labour Office, 2011. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. <http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@dgreports/@dcomm/@publ/ documents/publication/wcms_155428.pdf>.
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United Republic of Tanzania. N.p.: n.p., n.d. CHUNYA DISTRICT SOCIO-ECONOMIC PROFILE. The Planning Commission Dar Es Salaam and Chunya District Council Mbeya. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. <http://www.tzonline.org/pdf/chunya.pdf>.
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