Testing New Tools for Halting Modern-Day Slavery at Gold Mines

Solidaridad has partnered with organizations in Peru and Colombia to test whether Solidaridad’s approach to supporting better practices can stop forced labour of men, women and children in communities where we work. Gold is mined in over 70 countries globally and up to 25 million people dig gold manually, largely in poor remote areas.

Many people think that slavery in gold mines was something that happened long ago, during the time of the conquistadors or colonial rule in Africa.

The stark reality is that in some regions of the world today, forced labour at gold mines continues. In fact, gold remains one of the products most at risk. Here we explain why we are concerned, what Solidaridad and its partners are doing to change things, and how you can help.

Why we have to act now

In a 2011 U.S. Department of Labor report, “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor”, gold is named as the top commodity of risk, affecting more countries than any other commodity reviewed. The risk is so high because gold is mined in over 70 countries and 90 percent of the workers—up to 25 million people—dig for gold manually, largely in poor, remote areas.  Miners often work at a subsistence level outside of a formal economy and are unable to save for the future. They may have no other way to make a living and support their families. Some of the gold mining regions are in conflict or post-conflict situations.  Each of these factors makes people vulnerable to exploitation. 

How forced labour impacts gold mining communities

Forced labour happens when people are obliged to work against their will through coercion by their employer and threats of violence or death. This type of modern-day slavery at gold mines can take many forms. Men, women and children are victims, either as workers in the mines themselves or in related work in nearby communities.

Forced labour in conflict areas

In what is perhaps the most publicized example, tens of thousands of people living in the Great Lakes Region in Africa are forced to dig the gold that funds violent rebel groups. Outside of this region, conflicts are ongoing in other gold producing countries, as well. For example, gold miners in Colombia face threats of extortion and eviction by paramilitary groups. This has grown in recent years as the increasing gold price has led illegal groups away from drug production and toward a more lucrative trade in gold.

Bonded labour

In what is perhaps a less known but an equally unjust situation, miners in many countries around the world have become victims of debt bondage. This happens when miners owe large debts to the suppliers of the land and equipment that they need to work. These suppliers exploit them by charging a rate that is several times the market value. If the miners try to leave before paying off their debts, which can take many years, they are threatened with violence or death. 

Trafficking for sexual exploitation and domestic labour

Women are the main victims. They may work in mines or in nearby households as domestic servants without pay. Due to the fact that women are forbidden from working in the mines in many regions of the world, women may have no choice in this regard.  Or, they may be trafficked from other areas, held against their will and forced into prostitution.

Exploitation of children

Children are at high risk, as well. Human Rights Watch reports that over 1 million children work in small-scale mines around the world. Though sometimes older children work in family groups and help with light tasks that are appropriate to their age, in many countries, such as Mali, Burkina Faso and Colombia, children as young as five years old are forced into hazardous work underground or processing the gold with mercury. Since the International Labour Organisation (ILO) classifies any child working in a mine as a “worst form” of child labour, these situations are illegal and morally unacceptable.

Young girls also become victims of trafficking for prostitution in towns close to gold mines. In Peru, girls from indigenous communities like the Quechua are most at risk. This is not surprising, since the ILO has reported that victims are frequently drawn from minorities and socially excluded groups. Boys are also targets. Traffickers sell them to mine bosses as a cheap source of labour. They make attractive workers because they are small enough to fit into narrow underground tunnels.

Governments are largely ineffective at stopping the problem

The police may not take action, either because the mines are so remote or because corruption makes them turn a blind eye. For instance, the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report for 2012 states that Peru has only 50 anti-trafficking agents, based largely in Lima and Iquitos in the north. However, regions such as Madre de Dios that are active gold mining centers are located hundreds of miles away.

Some governments want to take action but don’t have the resources to do so.  For instance, the electronic tracking system used for case management in Peru was reportedly unavailable during part of the year due to a lack of funding for an Internet connection. Traffickers can shift their tactics quickly and avoid being caught even when systems are working well. Other government officials are deliberately covering up cases of forced labour because they fear that foreign businesses will not do business in their country if they hear about human rights abuses.

Solidaridad’s Work

Recognizing the serious risk of forced labour in gold mining communities, Solidaridad is testing whether we can use tools like Fairtrade certification to stop these human rights abuses in small-scale gold mining communities. In 2011 we expanded our ongoing programme in two countries, Colombia and Peru, to work in regions that pose a higher risk of forced labour. This expansion will enable us to learn whether the Fairtrade and Fairmined standard can be effective in regions where labour practices are at their worst and therefore call for greater attention and action. 

Solidaridad and its partners are working in seven mining communities in Peru and Colombia that are located in regions at medium- to high risk of modern-day slavery. Project staff will work in the communities to raise their awareness of labour rights and assist any victims of human rights abuses. We will then deliver at least 50 training events on fair labour, health and safety, and business practices to the seven mines, in partnership with local organisations.

Our primary tool will be Fairtrade and Fairmined standard for artisanal and small-scale gold mining. The standard sets a benchmark for fair labor practices.  The miners will need to register to operate legally, provide employment contracts under fair terms, and ensure that there are no children working in the mines. Women will have equal rights in the governance structure. Plus, the standard provides an incentive to the miners in the form of a minimum price of 95 percent of the market price, plus a price premium of ten to fifteen percent that will be reinvested in the community. This ensures a fair wage. 

Our objective at the end of our two-year project is for five mining associations to have the skills and knowledge to achieve Fairtrade and Fairmined certification. The remaining two mining associa
tions, located in higher-risk areas, will have made progress towards certification.  Importantly, the associations will have eliminated any forced or child labour, as well as put systems in place to ensure that good practices continue.  

At the other end of the supply chain, we will secure commitments to buy Fairtrade and Fairmined-certified gold from eight European jewelers.  We will also raise awareness of the public, as well as give people options for taking action to support good gold. 

In addition, we are working with partner Alliance for Responsible Mining to identify existing tools and to develop new ones that can be used by any organisation working to stop forced labour in mining communities around the world. We will test the toolkit in our focus communities in Peru and Colombia.

Our Project Partners

  • Amichocó in Colombia is identifying communities in the towns of Segovia and Remedios in Antioquia, Colombia, a region at high risk of forced labour.  Once identified, the communities will receive training organised and managed by Amichocó. 
  • Red Social in Peru is helping Solidaridad to evaluate risks in mining communities, and to deliver training to groups of miners in the regions of Madre de Dios, Arequipa and Ayacucho.   
  • Alliance for Responsible Mining has partnered with Solidaridad to develop a toolkit to use in small-scale mining communities around the world to stop forced labour and encourage better labour practices. 
  • Humanity United is a foundation committed to building peace and advancing human freedom. As a part of their mission, they support international efforts that seek to end modern-day slavery.

Solidaridad ambassador and well-known Dutch jewellery designer Bibi van der Velden traveled with Solidaridad to communities in the Madre de Dios region of Peru, an area of the Amazon basin that is at high risk of forced labour and trafficking. Gold mining is a leading source of income in the region; however the vast majority of miners work informally and there is little government oversight.