Abstract The use of mercury in small-scale gold mining has been a growing concern in many parts of Africa. However, although the negative effects of mercury pollution are increasingly reported, little has been written about how labour relationships and gold production challenges in mining communities affect mercury management practices. This article provides an integrative analysis of small-scale gold extraction processes, labour challenges, and mercury use at gold mills in Zimbabwe, focusing on a gold rush area in Mashonaland West Province. It examines practices employed by miners who have limited economic capacities to upgrade technologies, and how the complex relationships between miners, mill owners and government regulators affect environmental performance. The study draws attention to how poor environmental management practices relate to labour inequities, low gold recovery as well as the informal gold trade dynamics amid the country's economic crisis. Results of a United Nations-supported stakeholder consultation process are discussed, with proposals for improving labour conditions and reducing environmental risk. The article highlights why the government should develop and support local programs to assist miners, as well as the decisive roles mill owners could take in ensuring improved standards on their sites.