The global mining industry is increasingly showing a commitment toward greater respect for human rights and the environment, but is accused of wanting to improve its reputation without seeking real progress.
Wildcat miners, including children, are risking their lives daily to unearth metals and minerals they sell to mining companies. In return, they earn a subsistence wage, but not the working rights of a legal and salaried mining group employee.
“While industry initiatives on certain minerals and metals are helpful, companies are still responsible for undertaking comprehensive human rights due diligence across all minerals and metals in their supply chains,” said Eniko Horvath, a senior researcher at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC).
In June, dozens of illegal miners died when part of a copper mine collapsed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mine was in the Kolwezi area operated by Kamoto Copper Co, a subsidiary of Swiss giant Glencore PLC.
Meanwhile at the start of the year, a dam collapse at a mine operated by Brazilian group Vale SA unleashed a tsunami of mud that killed more than 200 people, while about 100 more went missing.
China, also the scene of fatal mining accidents, has also been in the spotlight for its dumping of toxic waste in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, as Beijing drives global production of rare earth elements used in key technologies such as smartphones.
Faced with rising criticism, the mining industry says it wants to adopt standards of good governance.
The London Metal Exchange (LME) recently adopted new ethical standards to ensure better traceability of raw materials, especially those most at risk such as cobalt used heavily in high-end technology.
“As metals play an increasingly important role in society with increased focus on ethical supply chains, the LME’s role and responsibility is vital,” the exchange’s incoming and first female chair Gay Huey Evans said on her appointment.
Earlier this month, the World Gold Council (WGC) issued “Responsible Gold Mining Principles” and called upon its members to “respect the human rights” of workers and communities affected by mining activities.
A spokesman for Barrick Gold Corp, the world’s largest producer of the precious metal, said that the group was already meeting or exceeding the new WGC guidance, while Glencore has laid out a similar charter to that provided by the World Gold Council.
Elsewhere, BMW Corp, along with German chemical giant BASF AG and Samsung Electronics Co, last week announced a joint project to ensure “responsible” cobalt mining in the DR Congo.
“It’s great to see these statements of purpose and expressions of a willingness to meet these standards, but they have to be matched with action,” Amnesty International official Lucy Graham said.
“What we really want to see is laws that are going to legally require industry to mine minerals responsibly and transparently.”
Jamie Kneen, from MiningWatch Canada, said he believes that companies and industry bodies are simply providing “yet another effort at PR whitewash.”
“The standards that they are incorporating are ... self-administered and audited by unaccountable third parties, and they are explicitly focused on providing confidence to investors and buyers with not even a mention of host or affected communities,” he said.
Kneen said there was a need for “enforceable ... legal and regulatory standards at all levels.”
To help companies face their responsibilities, BHRRC has this month launched a dedicated Web site, the Transition Minerals Tracker.
It “seeks to improve the human rights practices of companies that produce the minerals vital to the renewable energy and electric vehicles sectors, by shedding light on the key human rights risks in the geographies where they operate,” Horvath said.
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