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Working to Address Child Exploitation in Mining

May 14, 2015

By Mark Sitter, Sherritt International Corporation

A few years ago, Sherritt International, the mining company I work for, was constructing the Ambatovy nickel operation in Madagascar. Like any construction project in the sector, we had to work through a number of technical and engineering challenges, as well as non-technical ones. Madagascar, for instance, is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. It is also a deeply impoverished country; the World Bank cites that more than 92 per cent of the population lives on less than two dollars per day. As the largest foreign investor in the country, we knew we had to carry out construction in a highly responsible manner. And as someone who was working there during this period, I feel proud of our efforts. While we weren’t always perfect, we were always responsive to local communities and governments and did our best to stay true to our values.

During the peak of construction, more than 20,000 workers were at Ambatovy, including a large temporary male migrant workforce made up of contractors and subcontractors. Some of them were working in remote locations, far from the main sites.

One day, we received allegations that some subcontractors working offsite had been sexually exploiting teenage girls in a remote community. The situation was particularly complex due to the sad – but not uncommon – reality of familial complicity, and the face-saving nature of the local culture that made it difficult to address directly. So, while we wanted to take immediate action and do the right thing, we – quite frankly – weren’t exactly sure how to proceed.

As an obvious first step, we wasted little time in looking further into the allegations, and as a result, dismissing the perpetrators and handing them over to the authorities. But we knew we had to do more to support the victims and ensure this wouldn’t happen again.

At that point, we took a chance and reached out to UNICEF for help, recognizing that they had the expertise that could be very valuable in dealing with these types of issues. Despite the potential of having UNICEF criticize the company for what had happened, something much more constructive occurred. UNICEF was very willing to work with us to address the incident in a meaningful way.

UNICEF led efforts to provide mental and psychological support to the victims over a sustained period of time, drawing on their expertise in counselling, awareness building and setting up peer-support groups. UNICEF also provided us with guidance on establishing and implementing a zero-tolerance policy for our entire workforce. We spent significant time rolling out this policy and sensitizing workers to child sexual exploitation issues – and we continue to do this on an ongoing basis. We were transparent about what happened with external stakeholders – including media and civil society. And we also partnered with UNICEF on a long-term community awareness campaign – complete with peer educators, culturally appropriate informational materials, and permanently staffed kiosks – to ensure children and adults alike have a good appreciation for issues relating to child sexual exploitation and, more broadly, child protection.

Sadly, this type of incident happens globally more often than anyone would like to admit. I’m sharing this experience in the hopes that, when other companies face this type of situation, they will reach out to organizations like UNICEF for help; be transparent about it with their employees and stakeholders; and address things head-on. Doing all of this isn’t easy – but it’s the right thing to do.