A disturbing report issued just ahead of UN World Day Against Child Labor claims the exposure of child gold miners in Ghana to life-threatening risks is encouraged by inadequate checks along the supply line.
Two boys, 9 and 12 years old, demonstrate their daily work of washing and sluicing gold ore in Ghana's Ashanti Region
A report by the rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that most mining in Ghana takes place in unlicensed, artisanal or small scale mines, where thousands of children have to carry heavy loads of ore, breath in a lot of dust and a result cough up blood, or develop other respiratory health problems.
The child miners are also exposed to mercury poisoning because they have to process the ore with the toxic substance, risking brain damage and life long disability. Most of the children are aged between 15 and 17.
HRW presented its report in the Ghanaian capital Accra. Lead researcher Juliane Kippenberg told reporters about some of the dangers the children face.
"There was a case about two years ago where a boy worked in such mines. He has been working for a while, he is an orphan, living with his aunt. Early one morning he went to work and basically the walls of the pit caved in and buried him alive," she said.
HRW carried out its investigations in Ghana's Western, Central and Ashanti regions where they visited 10 small gold mining and processing sites and interviewed 44 child miners.
One of them related how he had started working with mercury at the age of 17 and developed a tremor in his hand.
"I was told if you work with mercury for a long period and especially baking gold and using your bare hands, your fingers will start shaking. It affects my writing," he said.
Government admits it is 'challenged'
Kippenberg said the recruitment of child gold miners is fuelled by poverty but was also "a result of inaction by the government and the companies."
Government officials concede that they haven't performed as well as they should in halting child labor, but they say they cannot take the children out of the mines or halt illegal mining without proper funding.
"It is a challenge, it will change, but it has to do with resources, the government is challenged with resources," Cypion Laryea, an official at the Ghanaian Labor Ministry told DW.
Local traders buy gold at or near Ghana's mines and sell it to other parties. Most of the gold is eventually exported to international gold trading or refining companies.
HRW found that five of the six international gold refiners acquiring gold from Ghana were "conducting significant due diligence steps" including on-site inspections.
But HRW said it had found that these checks by several of the companies had weaknesses "such as a lack of systematic monitoring of child labor or a lack of transparency."