The Channel 4 Dispatches programme, The Real Price Of Gold, said much of the gold jewellery that ends up on sale in British shops comes from unregulated and often illegal mining camps in Africa and South America.
Many of these mines employ young children to extract the metal, exposing them to the poison, mercury which is used in the process, and leaving them with aching and sore joints, as they miss out on an education to earn money to live on.
Because of the publicity about blood diamonds, and the Kimberly Process certification scheme, people buying diamonds can be assured that they come from legal, ethical mines. But there’s no such certainty with gold.
Channel 4’s reporter, Deirdre Bounds visited a gold mine in southern Senegal to film for the programme, broadcast on Monday night.
“I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” she said.
"The children spend all morning in the dark in tight and dangerous spaces hewing out ore and in the afternoon, they pound it to release tiny specks of gold,” she told the Daily Mail. “They then introduce it to mercury which is highly toxic and mix it with their bare hands.”
“And as if that isn’t bad enough, they then burn off the mercury, releasing the gold – along with a cloud of poisonous fumes.”
“I’d had no idea that this was happening. I’d never thought about it before and all the while I kept looking at my wedding ring. If my marriage wasn’t so important to me, I’d have taken it off.”
About, 90 per cent of the world’s gold miners – some 10 to 15million people – work in small or informal mines like the one she visited in Senegal, the programme said. They mine between 10 and 30 per cent of the gold that makes it into the shops.
Miner, Djimba Sidibe, 14 told the show about his working day. “When I get to the mine, I climb down and start digging for ore,” he said. “When you’re working it’s very hot down there and breaking the rock is really difficult. The main danger is the mine walls are unstable and can fall on you.”
Bounds argued in the programme that shoppers have no idea about how the jewellery they buy has caused all this suffering and desperation and says that the companies selling it often mislead customers.