Home BUSINESS COVID-19 devastates mining communities, increases rights risks

COVID-19 devastates mining communities, increases rights risks

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Major jewelry companies are improving their sourcing of gold and diamonds, but most cannot assure consumers that their jewelry is untainted by human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Tuesday in advance of the holiday shopping season.

The 84-page report, “Sparkling Jewels, Opaque Supply Chains: Jewelry Companies, Changing Sourcing Practices, and Covid-19,” scrutinizes and gives rankings to 15 jewelry and watch brands in their efforts to prevent and address human rights abuses and environmental harm in their gold and diamond supply chains. Human Rights Watch reviewed the companies’ actions since Human Rights Watch first reported on these issues in 2018. While a majority of the jewelry companies examined have taken some steps to improve their practices, most still fall short of meeting international standards. 

“Many jewelry companies have made progress in sourcing their gold and diamonds responsibly, but consumers still don’t have adequate assurances that their jewelry comes free of human rights abuses,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate child rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The Covid-19 pandemic demands even more vigilance from jewelry companies to identify and respond to human rights abuses.”

Human Rights Watch also assessed the impact of Covid-19 on mining and jewelry sectors. Mining workers, their families, and communities have been stripped of income where mining has stalled due to lockdowns. Where industrial mining has continued, mine workers work close together in closed spaces and sometimes live together in hostels, putting them at greater risk. In some small-scale mining areas, child labor has risen, and illegal mining and trading have increased.

Human Rights Watch conducted extensive research in numerous countries where abusive practices taint the supply chain. In Venezuela, armed groups known as “syndicates” control illegal gold mines and have committed horrific abuses against residents and miners, including punitive amputations and torture.

In Zimbabwe, the state-owned Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Company has employed private security officers who have mistreated residents accused of mining diamonds, including setting dogs on them.

Hazardous child labor occurs in small-scale gold mining areas in Ghana, Mali, the Philippines, and Tanzania, with children exposed to mercury used in the process. Children have died in mining accidents.

Jewelry and watch companies have a responsibility to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence to ensure that they do not cause or contribute to rights abuses in their supply chains, in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. “Due diligence” refers to a company’s process to identify, prevent, address, and remediate human rights and environmental impacts in their supply chains.

The 15 companies assessed collectively generate more than US$40 billion in annual revenue, about 15 percent of global jewelry sales. Nine companies responded in writing to letters requesting information regarding their sourcing policies and practices: Boodles, Bulgari, Cartier, Chopard, Chow Tai Fook, Pandora, Signet, Tanishq, and Tiffany & Co. Six companies did not reply to several requests: Christ, Harry Winston, Kalyan, Mikimoto, Rolex, and TBZ. Human Rights Watch based its assessment on the information received or publicly available.

Eleven of the companies assessed have taken some steps to improve their human rights due diligence since the publication of the 2018 report, “The Hidden Cost of Jewelry: Human Rights in Supply Chains and the Responsibility of Jewelry Companies.” Companies have enhanced the traceability of their gold or diamonds; opted to source only recycled gold to avoid risks related to newly mined gold; strengthened their supplier codes of conduct; more rigorously screened their suppliers; or publicly identified their suppliers. Ten of the companies now disclose publicly more information on their due diligence to ensure respect for human rights.

However, the majority do not identify the mines of origin for their gold or diamonds, nor assess and address conditions at these mines or elsewhere in the supply chain. Few appear to have reassessed their supply chains for Covid-19 risks, or actively taken steps to protect the rights of workers in their supply chains beyond their immediate employees.

Most companies also do not report in detail on their due diligence efforts. Four – Kalyan, Mikomoto, Rolex, and TBZ – make public little to no information on their sourcing policies or practices. Such lack of transparency runs counter to international norms on responsible sourcing and means that consumers, affected communities, and the wider public are left in the dark about potential abuses.

Human Rights Watch found that none of the 15 could be ranked “excellent” but ranked two – Tiffany & Co. and Pandora – “strong” for taking significant steps toward responsible sourcing; three – Bulgari, Signet, and Cartier – as “moderate”; and three – Boodles, Chopard, and Harry Winston – as “fair.” Chow Tai Fook, Christ, and Tanishq were ranked as “weak,” and four – Kalyan, Mikimoto, Rolex, and TBZ – could not be ranked for lack of disclosure of their sourcing practices. Five were ranked higher in 2020 than in 2018: Pandora, Boodles, Chopard, Harry Winston, and Tanishq.

Human Rights Watch also assessed several broader industry or multi-stakeholder initiatives, including by the Responsible Jewelry Council (RJC) and the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance. In addition, several initiatives are underway to use technology – such as blockchain and laser technology – to ensure full traceability of diamonds and other minerals.

However, most existing certification initiatives still lack rigor and transparency. Many still do not require full traceability, transparency, or robust on-the-ground human rights assessments from their members. Third-party audits of jewelry supply chains are often conducted remotely, and results are not publicly available.

“Despite the progress, most jewelry companies can do much more to address human rights in their supply chains and share that information with the public,” Kippenberg said. “Voluntary standards can encourage jewelry companies to adopt better practices, but ultimately only mandatory legal requirements will ensure that all jewelry companies take human rights seriously.”

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