Digging up the precious truth about the dark side of gold

After making millions from the sale of her ethical travel company, Deirdre Bounds tells Sarah Freeman about her search for the real price of gold.

Deirdre Bounds isn’t often lost for words.

She is after all the woman who while living in a Leeds bedsit set up the ethical travel company i-to-i, a business she later sold for £20m. Since then, the one- time stand-up comedian has admitted previous problems with alcohol, written a self-help guide for others who find themselves wedded to drink, launched a children’s party business and delivered numerous motivational speeches to those hoping to replicate her success.

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However, when she received a call asking if she’d like to make a documentary exposing the horrific conditions in which most of the world’s gold is mined, she was momentarily speechless.

“I honestly thought it was some sort of joke,” says Deirdre, who most of the time speaks 19 to the dozen. “I had just decided that apart from a few speaking engagements I was going to scale everything back to spend more time with my family.

“The call came completely out of the blue. I told them, ‘you know I’m not a television presenter, I’m certainly not an investigative reporter and while this seems like a good idea now, you might have second thoughts when we’re on the 50th take and I still can’t get it right’.”

However, Deirdre was persuaded to read a brief outline for the documentary, which proposed to trace the supply of gold from the mines of Senegal and Honduras to the jewellery shops on Britain’s high streets.

The aim was twofold: to expose how much of the gold on sale comes from mines which use child labour and have appalling environmental records, and to show how little the average consumer knows about the source of the precious metal.

“Most people are aware of blood diamonds and how they have fuelled conflicts in countries like Sierra Leone,” says Deirdre. “But it struck me how little we know about where gold comes from. My wedding ring is one of the most important things I have ever bought, but I never once stopped to think where and how the gold had been mined.

“The more I began to read about the industry, the more I thought this was an important programme to make.”

The documentary, The Real Price of Gold, which will be shown on Channel 4 next week, not only shows how blissfully ignorant most consumers are, but reveals how many well-known chains are misleading their customers.

Using a hidden camera concealed in a shirt buttonhole, Deirdre posed as an ordinary shopper and asked a number of retailers if they could tell her where the gold jewellery on their shelves had originated. One wrongly claimed it was sourced from Italy, another said a quick call to the head office would pinpoint the exact mine – it didn’t – and all went out of their way to assure her she needn’t have sleepless nights.

“It was all complete PR fudge,” she says. “The fact is that most gold is bought from banks and your average high street jewellery chain has no way of knowing where it originated. What worries me is the lack of honesty. I felt I was being fobbed off by some back-street second-hand car dealer.”

Determined to see for herself the conditions in which much of the world’s gold is mined, Deirdre, who a few years ago took part in television programme Millionaires’ Mission, helping to boost the economy of a rural Ugandan community, flew out to Senegal.

It was there she saw women and children handling highly toxic mercury with their bare hands and talked to one of the many hundreds of young boys who scratch a living as miners about the realities of the back-breaking work.

“I have done a lot of travelling, but I have never seen anything like the picture which confronted me in Senegal,” she says.

“This was not an African village of mud huts, it was a 21st-century gold rush town and one of the most industrious areas I have ever seen.

“It was the most amazing sight. There were 5,000 people mining the area, but what frightened me was how ad-hoc everything was. The mines, which were really just holes, 15m deep, dug in the ground were dotted all over. Anyone could just turn up and start digging and there were some children there who were as young as 10.

“One of the young lads told me how he had left his family in Mali to come work with his uncle. At 7am each day, he and his cousin would go down one of the mines and work until the afternoon.

“They would then spend hours pounding the gold into a powder and using mercury, which acts as a magnet, would form the metal into nuggets.”

However, constant exposure to mercury can lead to kidney and respiratory problems and, if it gets into the water supply, entire communities can be put at risk.

“I watched women go straight from handling mercury to cooking a pot of rice for the rest of the family. There is a complete lack of awareness about just what it is they are exposing themselves to. There was no school in this town, everything was all about the gold.”

In places like Honduras where gold mining operates on a much more industrial scale, the risks are even greater. Those living near one operation, which uses cyanide to extract the metal from the rocks, have complained of increased ill- health and many children are suffering from hair loss and skin irritations.

In an attempt to confront those responsible for bringing gold into Britain and perhaps shame them into introducing more ethically- robust standards, Deirdre also met the sales manager of one of the country’s biggest gold wholesalers.

“That was a little unnerving,” she says. “When we got to the offices, hidden cameras in place, I realised we would have to go through an airport scanner. Thankfully the man we had arranged to meet came down and suggested we go out for coffee instead.

“I don’t think I have ever been so relieved. He admitted it was an industry mired in health hazards, but in the next breath he said he couldn’t do anything about it. It was, he said, just the way it was.”

While there are movements to raise awareness of both Fairtrade and recycled gold, it remains a limited market. Deirdre came to the conclusion that the only way to stop the sale of gold mined by child labour and make the industry sit up and listen lies in the hands of the consumer.

“It’s up to us to say ‘no’,” she says. “I am a businesswoman not a charity worker, but I have always believed that commerce and ethics can mix. I built my first company on that philosophy and I don’t understand how some people can turn a blind eye to the human cost of gold production.

“High street stores need to be absolutely transparent and proactive about where their jewellery comes from, but we also need to learn to ask the right questions.”

Deirdre ended her journey into the gold industry on a double-decker bus, armed with a megaphone and calling for an end to dirty gold. If she was speechless at the start of the documentary, by the end she had certainly found her voice.

Dispatches: The Real Price of Gold is on Channel 4, Monday, June 27 at 8pm.

Tarnished image of an industry

Some 90 per cent of the labour force involved in gold mining is made up of artisan and small-scale miners.

Fifteen million men, women and children work in the gold mining industry, often in appalling conditions, and can still only scrape a living, with many earning as little as £3 a day.

Collectively, they produce 200-300 tonnes of gold each year, but they rarely receive a fair price for the product.

Around 50 per cent of the global demand for gold is for jewellery.

Traditionally seen as a safe investment in times of uncertainty, the price of gold has hit record highs in recent years. Earlier this year, unrest across the Middle East and North Africa fuelled a six per cent rise in gold prices.

The internationally agreed price of gold is set twice a day by traders in the City of London.

Under Fairtrade and Fairmined agreements, miners are paid a 10 per cent premium on top of the guaranteed minimum price, which can be used to invest in local communities or in the development of the business.

For gold that has been produced without the use of chemicals, miners receive an extra five per cent on top of the 10 per cent premium.

To sign the pledge to oppose dirty gold visit www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/articles/the-real-price-of-gold