Like most of us these days, I do a search on Internet when writing something. Today, I wanted to write about the Chilean mine rescue, but I found another story about 33 miners. Their accident happened in England in 1838 and they all died, including Charles Hutchinson, aged nine.
Reports for Royal Commissions later in the century show that child labour was nothing exceptional: “Janet Snedden, aged 9… Comes down a quarter before 6 and goes up again about 4 p.m.” is a typical example.
The Coalmining History Resource Centre where I found the reports has a national database of mining deaths in the UK, showing that accidents were typical too. Today, only the location seems to have changed. Ask somebody to supply the missing word in “China. Mine…” and the chances are they’ll say explosion or disaster. Yet mining isn’t the most dangerous civilian profession in OECD countries at least. Another UK study concluded that the fatal accident rate among fishermen was 115 times greater than in the general British workforce.
Despite their radically different workplaces, mining and fishing are similar in that they depend on natural resources and on people putting their lives and health at risk to keep us supplied. Apart from the actual physical dangers, other aspects of workers’ conditions in these industries can be horrendous. The newly published OECD Insights on Fisheries cites the case of Chinese fishers who not only had to pay $470 to secure a place on a boat, but had to agree to have their appendix removed before going to sea and to pay $47 for the operation themselves. And these were among the lucky ones who actually had a contract.
Movies like Blood Diamond show the other prices to be paid when vital metals and minerals come from conflict zones and help to provoke and sustain the conflicts themselves.
Putting an end to a trade controlled by brutal, heavily-armed gangs with friends in high places isn’t going to be easy, but at the end of September, key players in the supply chain of tin-tantalum-tungsten and gold, met with government representatives and international and civil society organisations to finalise guidance on responsible supply chain management of conflict minerals at an OECD-ICGLR conference (International Conference on the Great Lakes Region).
The following week 11 African countries endorsed an OECD system for the responsible sourcing of minerals.
We’ll have to wait to see if words are followed by actions, but hopefully one day this business will seem as unthinkable as sending children down a mine.