Profits, Worker Exploitation and Violence at Gold Mines in Burkina Faso

Gold Mining

The tragic events in Ukraine have overwhelmed the vast majority of news and rightfully so. Imperialism and therefore warmongering are inherent components of the specific system. So are, however, workers’ deaths with minimized facilities protection around the world. In 2019 40 workers died in construction sited in Great Britain. The recent explosion near a gold mine in Burkina Faso in Gomgombiro, Gbomblora, that killed 59 miners and injured another 100 is another example of workers paying the price of providing for their families and themselves. 

Maximising profit at the expense of safety

The blast took place in the gold market of the town where dangerous chemicals such as cyanide are used. It is in the inherent nature of the current production system that regulative measures in such places be of a minimum cost, so the owner/business increases their profit. It is said that the explosion was caused by chemicals that are used to clean gold in the area. Gold is the main export of Burkina Faso, putting the country fourth on the list of Africa, with the industry being worth $2bn in 2019. It is only natural that mines in the area pose a great pool of profit for business owners and surrounding militia groups. It is estimated that 800 similar unauthorized small mines have opened in recent years. Experts suggest that such mines easily evade government regulations concerned with workers’ rights. Marcena Hunter, senior analyst at Global Initiative stated that:

“The limited regulation of the artisanal and small-scale mining sector contributes to increased risks that can be very dangerous, including the use of explosives which are often smuggled into the country and used illegally.”

By evading legislation, small-scale miner owners can maximize profit while reducing the measures taken to safeguard the actual producers of the most valuable material Burkina Faso is producing. Unauthorized mines provide work for 1.5 million people according to estimates of the ministry. State regulation is limited and does not extend until this area, leaving workers unprotected against possible serious injuries and much more. Accidents such as roof collapses are frequent and result in the killing or in serious injuries of dozens of people who won’t be able to work again to make ends meet for themselves and their families.

Creating jobs without the responsibility of providing human rights protection

Recent reports have also shown the human rights violations that are present even in the regulated gold mining industry. Burkina Faso constitutes a country with a huge amount of child labour, especially in the gold mining industry. Furthermore, Swiss companies, which are major operators in Burkina Faso, are responsible for the displacement of 15,000 people, deprivation of land, depletion of potable water and increased hunger. The common misconception that ‘the more international companies get involved the more jobs are created’ has been rendered to be inconsistent as in Bissa, a village where one of the biggest industrially driven gold mines is present only 75 out of the 1,500 inhabitants could find a job due to the displacement. In a really audacious and questionable move, the Swiss Council of States found out that although Swiss companies can capitalize on the profits of gold mining in another country they are not responsible for providing essential human rights protection. 

Gold and the risk of violence

It is not only the gross deterioration of life and the human rights abuses that pose problems. Naturally, with such a large production of gold, the country runs into the serious problem of gold smuggling and illegal gold exports. As a consequence, many unauthorized mines constantly fall victim to attacks from terrorist groups which operate in the area. Only in two attacks in 2019, a total of 57 civilians were killed from ambushes staged by gunmen. Since August groups linked to the Islamic state, al-Quaeda and many more have engaged in major attacks against mining companies. Companies, instead of providing adequate protection to their workers, started flying them with helicopters so they don’t fall victim to an attack on the way. It is pretty obvious, however, that such a thing can happen in the mine itself as well! Such a grave situation is at least threatening to the lives of workers. News reports and research, however, seems to omit that situation.

The killing machine of work exploitation

Reports and investigations coming from the area seem to be focusing only on the threat to the country’s economy and the possibility of enriching these groups. Few reports concern themselves with the struggle, the dangers and the issues that the daily worker faces there. The possibility of mines closing will leave countless families without the possibility of meeting basic needs. No serious report concerns itself with the hundreds of workers that lose their life due to these attacks and the possible injuries from unregulated workplaces. Most of them detail them as mere numbers in the killing machine of work exploitation.

Panagiotis Gkagkatsi is a PhD Student in the School of Law, specialising in International Law, Economic Sanctions, Political Theory, International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law.

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