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Mines: Ethical Diamond, Fair Trade Gold, Frail Hands

By Farooque Chowdhury

01 November, 2010

Gains in mineral productivity with a decreasing mining employment expose the intensity of appropriation of surplus labor. ILO’s The evolution of employment, working time and training in the mining industry report (2002) found that mineral production was increasing while there was steady decline in mining employment. According to the report “well over 3 million miners’ jobs have been lost in the last five years alone.”

Diamond, a bullish market with eyes on emerging economies, surpassed $11 bn in production in 2006. (Value added is not accounted here.) (https://mmsd.mms.nrcan.gc.ca/kimberleystats/Global_Summary%20-%202006%20chart.pdf) Business is smart. It quickly identified the potential of “ethical jewellery”, less than 1 percent of the $56bn annual jewellery market. Multinationals, allured by future growth, made response with processes including “the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative or Global Reporting Initiative, and more recently the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance”. “Nice” initiative that do not forgo appropriation of labor, rather hide a cruel face with a humane mask!

Skilled miners working for longer hours in intensive working shifts increased productivity. In coal mining, the increase was more than 100 percent in Canada, India, the US, and by more than 200 percent in Australia, during recent years. In South Africa, the value of mine production increased by over 250 percent in 1985-2000 although employment fell by 50 percent. (The evolution of … industry) “With blasting, drilling and boring going on in inhospitable environments, sometimes over a mile underground”, with heat, noise, and dust miners often are engaged with hard physical work for 18 hours. Child miners’, girl and boy, work day is 10-12 hours. With promises for escape from poverty they get enslaved into “appalling working conditions”.

An ILO study found that many of the children are girls, “child labour in its worst form”. They risk “permanent injury from carrying heavy loads of rock and contamination from nerve-damaging mercury.” Girl miners’ work include wet and dry panning for gold, removing rubble and ore from the pits, transporting and hauling food, supplies, water and rocks and assisting their mothers in the preparation of food and drink, working in bars and restaurants in mining community. Bar work, in many cases, leads to sex work or sexual abuse. In a region in Tanzania, 85 out of the 130 girls ended up in commercial sex work. (Girls in mining: Research finding from Ghana, Niger, Peru and the United Republic of Tanzania, 2007) Girls’ working hours are longer, and workload is heavier. Girls, sometimes 10 years old, are exposed to flying rock, suffocating dust, accidents involving heavy tools, constant vibrations, noise, and toxic chemicals. Sometimes entire mining families are exposed to high risks from silicosis, mercury poisoning, and pneumoconiosis. Hearing loss and the effects of vibration are common among them.

Mining accounts for about 1 percent of the world’s workforce, about 30 million persons. One-third of them produce coal. In 1999, ILO found that artisan and small mines (ASM) employ 11-13 million persons in over 30 countries. On ASM, 80-100 million persons depend for their livelihood. (Social and Labour Issues in Small Scale Mines) About 4 million of the world small miners were female. Many of them worked part-time. In Bolivia, 8,000 palliris, women engaged in gold mining, work in harsh condition, sometimes in alluvial pits up to 20 meters deep, with low wages. In some cases their work is unpaid, helping their husbands.

With only 1 percent of the global workforce, it is “responsible for about eight percent of fatal accidents at work. No reliable data exist on injuries, but they are significant…” Accident rates in small mines are routinely six or seven times higher than in larger operations. Small mining, with “workplace fatality rate up to 90 times higher than mines in industrialized countries”, was expanding in many developing countries. (ibid.) Reliable data on ASM miners “are hard to come by”.

Blood and conflict are linked to many diamonds. Revenue from diamonds fuelled wars in African countries, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, the Ivory Coast. A Rough Trade: the Role of Diamond Companies and Governments in the Angolan Conflict exposed the links between corporations and governments doing business, buying diamonds and selling arms, with despotic governments and warlords. (Global Witness, 1998) All after war and blood, destination of diamond money, undoubtedly, is to legitimate market.

In small mines the low-paid, often seasonal, workers produce about 15-20 percent of world production of precious metals, gems, building materials and (mostly) non-fuel minerals, an ILO survey found. “Most small-scale miners gain a very meager living, some selling as little as US$1 worth of gold at a time.” Small mines account for 80-100 percent of gold, diamond or gemstone production in Burkina Faso, Guyana, Mozambique, Myanmar, Niger, and more than 50 percent in Bolivia, Mexico, the Philippines and Tanzania. Sub-Saharan Africa annually produces about $1 bn of gold and gemstones while in China, it is about $200 million, in Bolivia and Brazil about $180 million, in Indonesia $140 million, and in Peru about $250 million.

The ILO report said that the highest number of small underground coal mines was in China, India and Pakistan, and these experienced significantly higher numbers of fatal accidents. In Balochistan, Pakistan, 64 miners died in mines producing 1.6 million tons of coal in 1998; the fatality rate was 40 miners per million tons. In Bolivia, exploiting a closed tin mine “produced” 3 fatalities and 15 serious injuries each month. This was equivalent to about 1 percent of the workforce killed each year.

Hundreds of thousands of children work in small mines, scavenge materials, break rocks with hammers, wash ore, and sieve or transport it, carry food and water underground to the miners. Children, 9 years of age, are used to set explosives, fill sacks with ore, transport those on their backs and load into carts. Children are needed to enter into smaller tunnels. In the Philippines, children carry ore in 28 kg sacks from gold mines In Guinea, boys of 14-16 years in diamond mines, work at very low pay. In Tanzania, their age ranges from 12-15. They, the “snake-boys”, dig gravel in trenches, remove water with buckets and divert streams and rivers with sandbags. Children’s working day in Madagascar and Burkina Faso is 10 hours; in Peru, 12 hours. In Niger, 250,000 children worked in small mining. (Social … mines)

Miners, working in many cases without natural light or ventilation, “creating voids in the earth by removing material and trying to ensure that there will be no immediate reaction from the surrounding strata”, produce wealth worth of billions of dollars. As prices of these commodities soar, as poverty increases, persons accept this merciless working condition. Mining capital finds easy ways to dig profit.

There are association, council, campaign, initiative, and framework for “progressive” policies, and “responsible” mining and jewellery practices for avoiding “dirty” gold, to “break” power relations to save miners in ASM. There is talk of “transparency” in mining. “Principled” questions are pronounced there: “ethically” verified jewellery, “responsible” jewellery, and “ethical” diamonds produced with a holistic set of indicators under socially and environmentally “sound” conditions, “fair” trade gold standard in mining operations, guarantee of diamonds mined in “good” labor conditions, human, social, and environmental “rights” respected at mine sites, spending of royalties by governments in an “accountable” way, “grassroots” approach, formalized ASM, organized and profitable activity, etc. Lessons are imparted for social “change”. Community Councils and NGOs own and operate mines. In 2006, Hollywood produced Blood Diamonds. “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” by musician Kanye West enthralled many. In October 2007, the first “Ethical Jewellery Summit for Artisanal and Small Scale Miners” was convened at the World Bank, also seat of the Communities and Small Scale Mining Secretariat. NGOs, native and metropolitan, “civil” society, industry including De Beers, manufacturers’ association, academicians, and the relevant World Bank outfit join together to “strive” for betterment of miners-miserable.

Still it is miners’ life that speaks the social relations connecting the commodities: diamond, gold, etc., appropriation and accumulation by capital, and the power relations that perpetuate poverty. None of the initiatives goes to the roots of poverty and suffering of miners. “Ethics” and appropriation are kept together in a static position, kept in a way so that nothing changes fundamentally in miners’ life, so that miners can have a living to that level that ensures that they don’t perish, that ensures that they are strong enough to regenerate capital, that ensures that they are weak enough to live a cowed living, that ensures that “ethical” standards are uniform for both, miners and mining capital, that ensures that mining capital controls gold as “Gold is a wonderful thing! Whoever possesses it is lord of all he wants. By means of gold one can even get souls into Paradise.” (Columbus’ letter from Jamaica, 1503, quoted by Marx in Capital: I)

Farooque Chowdhury, a Bangladesh-free lancer,
contributes on socioeconomic issue.