US-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch has urged Ghana’s mining industry to better enforce its laws to prevent children working in dangerous, unlicensed gold mines.

In its ‘Precious Metal, Cheap Labor: Child Labor and Corporate Responsibility in Ghana’s Artisanal Gold Mines’ report, the rights group requested gold refiners to take immediate steps to avoid child labour in their supply chains.

According to the report, most mining taking place in Ghana’s artisanal or unlicensed mines using thousands of children working in dangerous conditions violates the country’s as well as international law.

The child laborers aged between 15 and 17 and also younger children pull the gold ore out of shafts, carry and crush loads of ore, and process it with toxic mercury, the agency said.

Human Rights Watch senior children rights researcher Juliane Kippenberg said: "Some work may be acceptable for children, but Ghana’s unlicensed gold mines are very dangerous places where no child should work.

"Companies buying gold in Ghana should exert control over their whole supply chain to make sure they’re not benefiting from child labour."

Since 2013, Human Rights Watch researchers visited Western, Central, and Ashanti Regions to conduct field research into the use of children in gold mining.

In these regions more than 160 people, including 44 child miners aged between nine and 17 working in ten artisanal and small-scale gold mining and processing sites were interviewed.

"Companies buying gold in Ghana should exert control over their whole supply chain to make sure they’re not benefiting from child labour."

During its research, the group found that children have been injured in most cases, with at least one instance of a collapsed mine causing deaths, while some suffered from pain and respiratory problems because of their work.

According to Human Rights Watch, Ghana is one of the world’s top ten gold producers, and artisanally mined gold from the country is used by international gold refiners from Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries.

Companies were requested to regularly monitor with unannounced inspections by those knowledgeable about child labour, and try to implement clear policies against underage mine workers in Ghana, where there are no systematic inspections.

Kippenberg added: "Governments should make human rights due diligence a requirement in producing countries like Ghana and where the gold gets traded and refined, such as Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates."

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining is poorly regulated in Ghana, where the law allows the use of mercury for artisanal extraction.

The government should take initiatives such as cash transfer programmes, appropriate youth employment options, and measures to make free primary education a reality in a bid to address underlying causes of child labour, the organisation added.

Image: A 13-year-old boy works in artisanal and small-scale gold mining in Obuasi. Photo: © 2014 David A. Masterwille.