Filipino children risk death to dive and dig for gold

By Deborah Andrews, CLC Contributing Writer

Deborah Andrews the real oneIn September 2015, Human Rights Watch released a report, “Phillipines: Children Risk Death to Dig and dive for Gold,” exposing the desperate working conditions of many of those involved in the Filipino gold mining industry. It is a worthy, informative and thought provoking read. In 2014, the Philippines produced 18 tons of gold. HRW researchers discovered that an estimated 70-80% came from small-scale mines, financed by local businessmen and operated without any basic machinery. These mines are worked by 200,000-300,000 people — many of them children aged 11-17, but some as young as 9 years old.

Most gold in the Philippines is underwater. To mine it, workers dive into narrow shafts often ten yards deep and only two feet wide. Using oxygen tubes to breathe, operated by a diesel compressor at the surface, workers can stay mining under water for 1-2 hours at a time. This is hazardous work. HRW researchers found that compressors frequently break due to mudslides; workers get extremely cold underwater; the diesel compressors can cause carbon monoxide poisoning; and a bacterium in the water causes a skin disease known as Romborombo that leaves skin irritated and infected.

Dry shafts can be 25 yards deep and have oxygen pumped into them by an air blower. Workers often work up to 24-hour shifts with only a short break above ground. There are frequent accidents. In 2014, two brothers suffocated, but the practice continues.

Disturbingly, HRW report authors discovered that mercury is widely used to process the gold. Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin, causing muscle spasms, brain damage, permanent disability, and even death. It is particularly harmful to children’s developing nervous systems. This unrestricted mercury use is now also contaminating the fish population, a vital food source – further endangering the people.

Encouragingly, the Filipino government has a legal framework of treaties to regulate the mining industry and combat child labor, but sadly HRW report authors found that enforcement of the law is ineffective. Lack of resources, staff shortages, conflicts of interest amongst those responsible, lack of political will, and a disconnect between centralized government and the realities of rural life all contribute to the lethargy to implement. Poverty ensures there is a constant pressure for children to contribute financially to family income. Nationally, 3,500,000 children do not attend school.

In March 2015, the Philippines banned the use of mercury in mining and prohibited compressor mining, but HRW report researchers expose that the use of both continues. It is illegal under Philippine law to work if you are under the age of 15. Hazardous work, including mining is prohibited for those under age 18. Under the 2007 Philippine Program Against Child Labor and The Convergence Program Against Child Labor the country has set the goal of reducing the worst forms of child labor by 75% by 2015, but the government needs help. The HRW report has many suggestions for action including the following:

  • Urge the government to ratify the Minamata Convention on Mercury
  • Provide support to the government to implement the convention’s legal framework
  • Develop a strategy to tackle child labor in mining which will follow the Philippines Program against Child Labor
  • Develop outreach programs to children not in school
  • Create appropriate youth employment to support families
  • Develop a comprehensive strategy for a responsible and safe small-scale mining sector
  • Introduce mercury-free methods to process gold
  • Enforce the March 2015 administrative order to ban mercury use and compressor mining
  • Improve access to health care
  • Monitor children’s mercury levels in mining areas
  • Require gold traders to ask where the gold originates from

I invite you to read about the report here: 

View a video of children speaking about their experiences here: