Mining in the best of circumstances is a high-risk occupation.
Gold mining is big business in Ghana, which in 2019 took over from South Africa to become the leading gold producer in Africa. While the major multinational mining names – Newmont Goldcorp, Kinross Gold, AngloGold – are active in the country’s biggest mines, informal small-scale operations also proliferate.
These small-scale mines operate in the shadows; lacking the proper certifications to operate legally, they turn a blind eye to regulations and worker safety or sanitation. The lack of proper monitoring and regulation mechanisms for these small-scale operations have translated directly to indecent working conditions. In this ‘wild west’ of shadowy operators, workers lack any protective equipment or knowledge of safety procedures and are exposed to harmful dusts and chemicals like mercury. The abandoned mines that these illegal operators take over have not been maintained, and accidents and structural collapses are common. The ILO estimates that injuries are six to seven times more common in the small-scale operations than the big companies.
Ghanaian law states that workers should be at least 18 years old, but boys as young as 12 commonly work the mines. In a 2020 study on small-scale gold mining, the International Labor Organization (ILO) notes that the small-scale sector is primarily poverty-driven, and despite being one of the most hazardous forms of child labor, remains an attractive option for children in poverty.
Manuru has been working in the mines for 14 years. His uncle brought him here after Manuru’s father had died, hoping to earn money to support himself and his family, Manuru was instead trafficked into bonded labor. Ghanaians from around the country scrounge money to make their way to this region, hoping to find riches in the gold mines. They arrive with no money, to discover they lack the certifications to work in the legal mines. Instead, they are forced to take loans from “recruiters” who then traffic them into slave “gangs” of eight or ten to work as bonded labor in the illegal mines. They are often harassed by the police and private security forces for trespassing in the abandoned mines. They are not paid for their work, instead forced to sell their gold back to the recruiter in a never-ending cycle of labor-debt bondage. When his uncle died, Manuru inherited his debt as well. This is what modern-day slavery looks like.
According to the ILO there are more than 40 million people trapped in slavery and forced labor worldwide in everything from mining to brickmaking to prostitution. That is more than the population of Canada. Given the difficulty documenting these illegal practices, this figure is considered conservative. In Ghana the estimate that figure is in the hundreds of thousands. A 2012 research project from abolitionist organization Free the Slaves found that boys as young as 12 are working at these illegal mines. Girls as young as ten are being trafficked as prostitutes for miners. Their research found widespread ignorance of legal protections for children under international and Ghanaian law, and community leaders expressed frustration in the limited government and legal intervention.