SAN FRANCISCO, MARCH 09 (IPS) – I am nearly 200 feet below a rickety old mine, in Ghana’s Ashanti gold mining region. It’s stifling hot and darker than the moonless night. I can only feel the touch of sweaty bodies passing through the darkness and hear the echo of miners coughing and breaking rocks. Lack of oxygen and dust makes breathing difficult. I have no idea how deep this column is – hundreds of feet? More? If there is hell it must be how you feel.
Death penalty advocates who brought me into this illegal operation refuse to go down to the dilapidated mine – an abandoned mine that has been taken over by outlaw operators on a small scale after the rightful owners moved in. Instead, some of the miners in this “gang” of eight men agreed to let me accompany them underground.
Each miner carries three things with him – a worn out old flashlight tied to his head with a rubber band, a pair of primitive tools and an empty bag he hopes will be filled with a rock containing gold. They spend two to three consecutive days underground, breaking through stone walls to release the rocks they pull to the surface in bags hanging over their shoulders. When they come out, these guys are wet with bloodshot eyes and an indescribably tired look.
Slippery tree limbs are all that support the narrow shaft walls. At one point I was almost losing a grip, my legs violently swinging in the air without feet. I immediately think of Manoru, the man I met that day who lost his grip and fell off the pole. His leg was so badly injured that the doctor insisted it must be amputated. But it continues to work. He has no choice. He has no money and he owes him the merchant who “hired” him for this illegal operation.
Gold mining is big business in Ghana, which in 2019 acquired South Africa to become the leading producer of gold in Africa. While the major multinational mining names – Newmont Goldcorp, Kinross Gold, Anglo Gold – are active in the country’s largest mines, small, informal operations are also proliferating.
These small mines operate in the shade. Lacking the appropriate certifications to operate legally, they turn a blind eye to regulations, worker safety or sanitation. Ghanaian law states that workers must be at least 18 years old, but usually boys under 12 work in mines. In a 2020 study on small-scale gold mining, the International Labor Organization (ILO) noted that the small sector is primarily driven by poverty, and although it is one of the most dangerous forms of child labor, it remains an attractive option for children. In poverty.
When I met Manoru, he had been working in mines for 14 years. His uncle brought him here after the death of Manoru’s father, hoping to earn money to support himself and his family, Manuro was instead trafficked into slave labor. Ghanaians from all over the country are rich with money to make their way to this area, hoping to find riches in the gold mines. They pray without money, only to discover that they lack certification to work in legal mines.
Instead, they are forced to borrow from “conscripts” who then trade them into “slave gangs” of eight or ten for forced labor in illegal mines. They are often harassed by the police and the SS for their encroachment on abandoned mines. They are not paid for their work, and instead are forced to sell their gold back to a recruiter in a never-ending cycle of labor debt bondage. When his uncle passed away, Manoru also inherited his religion. This is what modern slavery looks like.
Mining is in best conditions a high-risk profession. The lack of adequate monitoring and regulation mechanisms for these small operations may directly translate into inadequate working conditions. In this “wild west” of mysterious operators, workers lack any protective equipment or knowledge of safety procedures and are exposed to dust and harmful chemicals such as mercury. Abandoned mines captured by these illegal operators have not been maintained, and accidents and structural collapses are common. The International Labor Organization estimates that injuries are six to seven times more common in small operations than in larger companies.
According to the International Labor Organization, more than 40 million people are trapped in slavery and forced labor around the world in everything from mining to brick-making to prostitution. This is more than the population of Canada. Given the difficulty of documenting these illegal practices, this figure is conservative. In Ghana, this number is estimated in the hundreds of thousands.
2012 Research project from the Organization for the Abolition of Slavery Free the slaves I found boys as young as 12 working in these illegal mines. Girls up to the age of ten are trafficked to work as miners’ prostitutes. Their research found widespread ignorance of the legal protections of children under international law and Ghanaian law, and community leaders expressed frustration with government and limited legal intervention.
Modern slavery thrives in the dark. Only when we highlight these grievances and illuminate the shared dignity and humanity of those trapped can we begin to work toward solutions.
The author is an international humanitarian photographer, activist, and keynote speaker. She has published six books and has been the subject of four documentaries. It is a founding member of Global Sustainability Network (GSN), Follow-up to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 8, with a special focus on Target 8.7
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© Inter Press Service (2021) – All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service