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Protecting artisanal miners from consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic

Alex Wessely highlights international efforts to protect artisanal and small-scale miners from economic and work-related consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Artisanal mining, Congo
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Alex is a solicitor working with Martyn Day in the International Department. Alex first started working for Leigh Day in 2012, when he joined as a paralegal working on the “Mau Mau” litigation. He spent about nine months in Kenya interviewing veterans of the Mau Mau Uprising, before leaving in September 2013 to complete his legal qualifications. Alex qualified into the international department at Leigh Day in September 2017.
Last month, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published an emergency call to action to protect the millions of artisanal and small-scale miners around the world from the devastating consequences of coronavirus.

The call to action is signed by 73 different organisations and calls for a concerted approach from governments, financial institutions, and more to protect this group of people, which is already one of the most vulnerable and marginalised in the world. 

Artisanal mining tends to be unregulated and informal. Miners often lack any health and safety equipment. They fashion their own tools, or work by hand; picking whatever sought-after minerals are abundant in their area, ranging from gold to sand.

Small-scale mining can be a vital source of income for families and actually accounts for 90 per cent of all mining labour in the world.  Responsible co-operation can exist between such mining communities and the supply chains of major companies. 

However, the capacity for abuse is extremely high. Artisanal miners are vulnerable to accidents, bonded labour, exploitation, sexual abuse and gender-based violence.  

A recent Leigh Day blog highlighted the plight of artisanal miners in the cobalt mines of the Congo. Families have little option but to work in unstable, self-dug tunnels which can be so narrow that only children can access them.  

Indeed, as the OECD explains, out of the estimated 41 million artisanal miners globally, over one million are children. 

Often artisanal mining operates illegally and encroaches onto land which is reserved for global corporations. This means that, aside from the treacherous conditions that they work in, artisanal miners are exposed to violent reprisals from private security forces or police acting on behalf of powerful companies.  
In recent years, Leigh Day’s International Department has acted in cases on behalf of artisanal mining communities, such as in Mozambique where claimants alleged severe mistreatment at the hands of local security forces. The case was resolved out of court. 

Why has COVID-19 exacerbated these problems? 
The OECD call to action sets out how the global disruption of supply chains has intensified the problems faced by many artisanal mining communities. The price paid to desperate miners for resources such as gold has plummeted, even as the pandemic has caused a seven-year high for gold prices.  Many governments have moved to close down ‘non-essential’ mining sites and this has left local economies reeling and, according to IMPACT, created more opportunities for “highly opportunistic armed groups to step in and take over”.

Supply Chain
Due to the impact of COVID-19 companies may be tempted to turn a blind eye to how, and under what conditions, the minerals which reach their factories were extracted. In fact, now more than ever is the time for greater transparency. As the OECD explains, “the COVID-19 crisis has made even more apparent the gaping inequalities in the mineral supply chains”. Companies need to ensure that they ask questions of their supply chain and do everything within their power to guarantee the health and safety of the broader communities within which they operate.

The OECD makes detailed and essential recommendations, under five separate headings, aimed at governments, private companies, humanitarian networks and local civil society. As it points out, “a safe and responsible artisanal mining sector can be a vector for development and rapid post-COVID economic recovery for millions of women and men”. 

What else can be done?
There have been welcome further initiatives announced recently aimed at helping clean up supply chains. 
For example, the International Peace Information Service (IPIS) announced the development of a mobile-phone based reporting system which people can use to anonymously report violence, abuse, accidents or child labour.

Providing a confidential means of reporting grievances is crucial to regulate supply chains and protect artisanal communities. Often people are too scared to speak out due to fear of violent reprisals or losing their job and livelihood. 

Leigh Day have experience of these fears in our cases. Claimants and witnesses can be scared of litigation where their identities would become publicly known. To protect our clients, Leigh Day have made successful applications for anonymity Orders, and successfully argued for the formation of a “confidentiality club”, where the identity of a whistle-blower or witness is only told to specific individuals with the prior agreement of the claimants. 

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