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Dirty Metals

Undermining the Rights

and Safety of Workers

Mineworker in South Africa / Photo: ICEM

O n October 9, 2003, the south face of the Grasberg gold mine in West Papua, Indonesia, collapsed.
Eight workers died and five others were injured. Government investigators turned up evidence that in
the days leading up to the accident, seismic data had led mine operators to suspect that slippage was immi-
nent, and that key machinery—but not workers—had been moved from below the unstable zone. These
were not the first deaths at the Grasberg mine, the largest open-pit gold mine in the world. In May 2000,
a landslide at the mine’s waste dump claimed four lives, prompting environmentalists and government
officials to question the safety of recent production increases.46
In 1983, the chief safety engineer of an unnamed South Rock falls, tunnel collapses, fires, heat exhaustion, and
African mining corporation told the Economist that “produc- other dangers claim the lives of over 15,000 miners every
tion is more important than safety.” No one in a similar posi- year. (Miners in the notoriously dangerous coal mines of
tion would go on record with such a statement today. And it China may account for up to half of these deaths.)
is true that over the past 20 years, health and safety condi- According to the International Labour Organization (ILO),
tions have improved in large-scale corporate operations in deaths within the mining sector as a whole (both metals
most countries. Between 1984 and 2001, for instance, the and coal) account for 5 percent of all worker deaths on the
average annual death rate in South African gold mines fell job, even though the sector employs just under 1 percent of
from 1.23 per 1,000 workers to 1.05 per 1,000, while the all workers worldwide. But these are just the reported
reported accident rate declined by one-third. (For conditions deaths; a substantial share of mining deaths go unrecorded.
at small-scale sites, see page 25.) But even so, mining remains The data on injuries are even less reliable but it’s likely that
one of the world’s most dangerous professions.47 hundreds of thousands of serious injuries are sustained

Undermining the Rights and Safety of Workers

Small-Scale Mining, Large-Scale Risk

A fair share of the world’s min-

ing is done, not by big corpo-
rations, but by individual people,
Mercury is a neurotoxin that has
been shown to impair brain func-
tion in fetuses and children. People
Guiana, for instance, the Wayana
people live downstream from
small-scale gold mining operations
families, and collectives. This part continually exposed to it may and suffer from mercury poison-
of the industry, which is largely experience loss of coordination ing. Their hair sample tests show
confined to the developing world, and memory, personality change, mercury levels two to three times
is known as “artisanal and small- and stupor. Mercury has also been higher than World Health
scale mining,” or ASM. ASM covers linked to increases in miscarriages Organization limits.
a range of activities. At the high and birth defects. In children, high
Overall health and safety data for
end are companies doing sophisti- levels of exposure correlate with
ASM are sketchy, but the sector
cated but small-scale mechanized lower intelligence and hearing loss.
appears to experience a signifi-
mining. But the overwhelming Mercury can also persist in the
cantly higher accident rate than the
majority of the sector’s workers are environment for decades in forms
industry as a whole. Lack of train-
found at the opposite end of the in which it is readily metabolized.
ing and equipment lead to more
spectrum: they are poor, untrained And it bioaccumulates—it builds
frequent landslides, shaft collapses,
miners often working their claims up in the fat of animals in increas-
and accidents with explosives. In
together with their families. Some ing concentrations at higher links
matters of risk, ASM differs in
of these miners are organized into of the food chain, with the result
another important way from large-
collectives of several hundred peo- that top predators (bears, for
scale mining: many injuries in
ple. All told, there are enormous example, or people) tend to absorb
ASM are suffered by women and
numbers of them: an estimated 13 the highest concentrations of it.
children—a reflection of their
million people are directly
But in poor communities, where widespread presence in the sector.
employed in the sector—as
there is little information on such Children, for example, are fre-
opposed to only around 2.75 mil-
hazards, and where in any case, quently employed underground
lion in industrial metals mining.
people cannot afford to buy safety because of their small size. Women
ASM produces a sizeable share of equipment, few precautions are make up an estimated 10 to 20
the world’s gem stones and pre- taken. Amalgamation is often done percent of the above-ground ASM
cious metals, especially gold. But at home, by women and children, workforce, and are often engaged
these riches are produced at great while the men are out on the claim in the amalgamation process.
cost to both the environment and digging more ore. The mercury is
This poor safety record is due in
human health. often handled with bare hands,
part to a lack of legal recognition.
and heated in the same pots used
On both counts, the single greatest According to the International
for cooking. Under such circum-
threat within the sector is proba- Labour Organization, about 80
stances, it’s virtually impossible to
bly mercury poisoning. Artisanal percent of the world’s small-scale
avoid inhaling mercury vapor, and
extraction of gold is done through mining is illegal. In many poor
contaminating food and drinking
a process called amalgamation, in countries, the laws against ASM
water with the metal. Much of the
which gold ore is heated in the haven’t successfully controlled it,
mercury eventually escapes into
presence of mercury. The mercury but they have discouraged poor
soil and water, and once released it
“amalgamates” with—adheres miners from seeking medical help
tends to be mobile. In French
to—the gold, thereby drawing it and other forms of assistance. The
out of the ore. The gold remains miners’ reticence, in turn, makes it
in more or less pure form after the difficult to understand their needs,
mercury evaporates in the heat. or how the sector as a whole might
best be managed.54
But in both its liquid and its vapor
Photo: JATAM

forms, mercury is extremely toxic.

Small-scale gold mining, East 25

Kalimantan, Indonesia
Dirty Metals

every year in the mines. In 1996, Pik Botha, then South tions that employ them, the unions themselves are global-
Africa’s Minister for Mineral and Energy Affairs, estimated izing. In 1998, for example, members of the 20-million-
that in his country, each ton of gold mined costs 1 life and strong International Federation of Chemical, Energy,
12 serious injuries.48 Mine and General Workers Union (ICEM) formed the
In addition to the deaths and injuries on the job, mining can Rio Tinto Global Network to confront the labor practices
cause a range of long-term disabilities, the most common of of the Rio Tinto Corporation. Rio Tinto operates in 40
which are respiratory problems such as silicosis. Caused by countries and is the world’s largest private mining compa-
the inhalation of crystalline silica dust, a common air con- ny. The Global Network charges that the company has
taminant in hardrock mines, silicosis can develop after only employed union-busting activities, some of which might
seven months of exposure to the qualify as human rights abuses,
dust, and can lead to complete at mines in various parts of the
loss of lung function. It also world. Among the charges are
greatly increases its victims’ sus- accusations that Rio Tinto fired
ceptibility to other lung diseases, HIV-positive workers in
such as tuberculosis, bronchitis, Zimbabwe; that in Brazil’s
and lung cancer. Deep mines, Paracatu gold mine, it spied on
such as South Africa’s gold mines,
and fired union leaders, and
which reach depths of 3.5 kilo-
exposed workers to highly toxic
meters (2 miles), present their
own special set of risks. The levels of lead; and that it violated
extreme heat—up to 60 degrees Photo: ICEM
a two-day-old collective bargain-
Celsius (140 degrees F)—and the ing agreement with mass layoffs
high atmospheric pressure put miners at risk for certain in Utah. Although the company has signed the United
kinds of nerve damage and high blood pressure. South Nations Global Compact, a code of corporate responsibil-
African gold mines sometimes also extract uranium, thereby ity, the Global Network points out that Rio Tinto’s poli-
exposing thousands of workers to unsafe radiation.49 cies do not yet acknowledge basic ILO standards, such as
protections for collective bargaining.52
It’s not surprising that in some countries, the lifespan of min-
ers is substantially lower than that of the general population. But even though it is growing more sophisticated, labor
In Bolivia, for example, the average miner in the tin mines of organizing in the mines remains a difficult and risky busi-
Potosí will live only 35 to 40 years, whereas the general popu- ness. The International Council of Metals and Mining
lation’s life expectancy at birth is about 64 years.50 (ICMM), a confederation of the 25 largest mining compa-
nies, still does not recognize the rights of workers to bar-
Almost all governments have enacted health and safety reg-
gain collectively in its guiding principles. In some coun-
ulations that apply to the mining industry. But these laws
tries, such as China, Burma (Myanmar), and Laos, organiz-
are often poorly conceived and enforced. To help bridge the
ing independent unions is illegal. In Burma, workers are
regulatory gap, the ILO developed the “Convention on
not only prohibited from forming unions, but have some-
Safety and Health in Mines” in 1995. The Convention
times even been subjected to forced labor, such as at the
requires employers to “eliminate or minimize” safety and
Monywa Copper Mine, operated by the Canadian corpora-
health risks in their mines. It requires governments to over-
tion Ivanhoe Mines, where the ILO reports that in the mid-
see and report publicly on the implementation of such
1990s, nearly a million people were forced to build the
measures, and to suspend mining when violations occur.
hydroelectric plant and railway servicing the mine. Even
And it guarantees miners’ rights to form unions and to be
where unions are legal, they are often undercut in various
informed of health and safety risks and precautions. But to
ways. In 2001, for example, some 2,500 workers at copper
date, only 20 countries have ratified the ILO Convention
mining facilities in Kazakhstan were forced by the manage-
and have agreed to abide by its standards. Among the major
ment to join “house” unions—led by the director’s right-
mining countries that have not done so are Australia, Brazil,
hand man—or face dismissal. Sometimes the hostility to
Canada, China, Indonesia, Peru, and Russia.51
the unions turns deadly. In Colombia, which has the
Miners have tended to respond to this unfavorable regula- world’s worst record for trade unionist murders (one
tory climate by looking to each other for support. To killing every other day), 11 members of the metals, mining,
increase their leverage with the multinational corpora- and oil workers’ union federation were killed in 2001.53 ■