By Brecken Branstrator
London—Gemfields Group said it has discovered unlicensed miners digging for “syndicates” at its Montepuez ruby mine after investigating an uptick in pit collapses this year.

The company said these pit collapses have resulted in “multiple deaths” at the mine so far in 2019, and prompted its subsidiary, Montepuez Ruby Mining, to begin investigating illegal mining activities in the area.

Gemfields said the miners are generally recruited by “well-financed syndicate leaders or middlemen”—though it didn’t elaborate on exactly what was meant by this—who promise wealth through ruby mining.

The miners and/or their families might be asked to pay the syndicates to be allowed the chance to mine and to receive transportation to, as well as food and accommodation in, the Montepuez area. Many of the miners are coming from Nampula in northern Mozambique, Gemfields said, which is nearly 250 miles by road from Montepuez.

When they can’t pay the fees upfront, the syndicates then offer a loan, placing the miner in debt to the syndicate.

The miners are then taken to the pits at Montepuez where they receive tools, food, water and accommodation but are subjected to “abject and highly unsafe conditions,” Gemfields said.

Any gemstones found by the miners have to be sold through the syndicate to a “higher boss,” with the miners receiving only a fraction of the profits.

Indebted to the syndicates and left with no extra money to return home, the miners are effectively bound in “modern slavery,” Gemfields asserted.

The company said Montepuez Ruby Mining is working with the government of Mozambique to “identify the sources of such activities and reduce the risk to, and exploitation of, vulnerable groups.”

Montepuez is the same mining site that was at the center of a recent lawsuit.

Last April, U.K. law firm Leigh Day filed suit against Gemfields on behalf of a group of Mozambicans living near the mining concession who alleged they or their relatives were the victims of human rights abuses at or around the mine.

In January, Gemfields agreed, on a no-admission-of-liability basis, to the settlement of all claims of human rights abuses in Mozambique brought against it, paying out about $7.6 million in the case.

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