OPINION: To achieve decent work, we must improve the health and safety of 'hidden' artisanal miners

Tuesday, 13 July 2021 11:39 GMT

An artisanal tin miner uses a plastic tub to check the sand of tin ore while working on a pontoon off the coast of Toboali, southern shores of the island of Bangka, Indonesia, May 1, 2021. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

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We have a collective responsibility to ensure that the world’s hidden mining workforce, supplying the materials we use in our daily lives, enjoy safe and productive working conditions

By Demetrios Papathanasiou, Global Director for the Energy and Extractives Global Practice, World Bank and Kurt MacLeod, Senior Vice President, Programs, Pact

Each day an estimated 45 million artisanal and small-scale miners worldwide go to work in difficult and dangerous conditions. Working almost exclusively in the informal economy, these women, men and sometimes children, are the world’s hidden workforce, mining the minerals and metals used to produce everything from electronics to luxury jewelry.

Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) produces approximately 12-24% of the world’s cobalt used in electric vehicle batteries, 20% of the world’s gold and 25% of tin and 26% of tantalum (found in smartphones and laptops). Despite its importance, there is very limited data on ASM and little attention – if any – is given to improving miners’ occupational health and safety (OHS).

Although there is an assumption that ASM is inherently unsafe, we need to better understand the causes and size of the OHS issue while identifying practical solutions that miners can implement themselves.

Building such an evidence base would help galvanize policymakers and the global community to act. It would also demonstrate how improving occupational health and safety in artisanal mining is essential to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 8: sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all.

The 2020 State of the ASM Sector report, published by Delve, a global platform for ASM data developed by the World Bank and the Washington-based international development nonprofit Pact, has started to plug this gap. The report finds that the ASM sector had the same fatality rate in 1999 as large-scale coal mining in the United States and gold mining in South Africa had in the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. Applied to today’s global employment estimate of 45 million artisanal miners, this 1999 fatality rate would equal approximately 30,000 deaths annually – a sobering figure and one we must improve.

In contrast, the fatality rates in large-scale mining today are close to zero. In U.S. coal mining, for example, the establishment of the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety & Health Administration in 1977, which now has annual budget of $376 million, has helped reduce the fatality frequency rate by over six times. This improvement in the safety of large-scale mining over the past 40-50 years shows what is possible with concerted efforts and dedicated resources. It raises the prospect of whether similar results could also be achieved in ASM.

Several case studies illustrate the opportunities, especially when the economic returns of improving mine safety are made clear to miners and mine owners. 

  • In Rwanda, installing low-cost winches to transport ore up steep, unstable ravines to mineral processing sites reduced the risk of injury from carrying these materials. This simple “fix” improves working conditions and frees up more miners to extract ore, increasing productivity without lost livelihoods.
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the ASM cooperative at the Mutoshi cobalt pilot could safely mine and process cobalt above ground, once machinery was used to remove the top layers of soil and rock. Miners also received protective equipment and free onsite healthcare to treat illnesses such as malaria and diarrhea. The result was a safer and healthier workforce where miners reported better working conditions. Indeed, the cooperative reported a record 6 million work hours without a fatality during the pilot. 

We have a collective responsibility to ensure that the world’s hidden mining workforce, supplying the materials we use in our daily lives, enjoy safe and productive working conditions. There are examples that are well underway to improve OHS in ASM. However, we need more data to understand the challenges, more collaboration to identify appropriate solutions and more financing to achieve SDG8 within this highly informal and often invisible sector.