Tag Archive for: Mining


The Guardian: “How child labour in India makes the paving stones beneath our feet”

“Despite promises of reform, exploitation remains endemic in India’s sandstone industry, withchildren doing dangerous work for low pay –often to decorate driveways and yards thousands of miles away.”

By Romita Saluja [3/28/2024


Sonu and his mother work eight hours a day, usually six days a week, making small paving stones, many of which are exported to the UK, North America and Europe. Sonu began working after his father died of the lung disease silicosis in 2021. “First, he made five stones, then 10, and then he quit school to work full-time,” his mother said. The pair sit on a street close to their home, amid heaps of sandstone rubble, chiselling rocks into rough cubes of rugged stone. Sonu is paid one rupee – less than a penny – for each cobblestone he produces. These stones have a retail value of about £80 a square metre in the UK.


Read the story here.


[Published in The Guardian March 28, 2024]


Child Labor Coalition joins calls for cleaner, more responsible jewelry supply chain

Press Release
February 8, 2018

Contact: Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition, (202) 207-2820, reidm@nclnet.org 

Washington, DC–The Child Labor Coalition (CLC) today joins nearly 30 NGOs and trade unions from around the world in calling on the jewelry industry to ensure responsible sourcing of precious metals and gems. One million children toil in mines, often extracting metals, including gold and silver, and gems like jade, emeralds, and diamonds. The work is extremely hazardous, putting children at risk of serious injury and death. Many child miners use toxic substances such as mercury that can cause severe damage to their developing neurological systems. Mining also causes profound ecological damage in many communities, polluting waterways and soil and endangering the health of communities.

“Consumers purchase nearly $300 billion in jewelry each year,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League (NCL) and co-chair of the CLC, whose 38 member organizations have worked to reduce child labor around the world for nearly three decades. “It’s time for jewelry companies to do more to provide consumers with jewelry that isn’t tainted with the scourges of child labor and forced labor. Existing mechanisms to clean up this supply chain have not gone far enough. It’s time for greater transparency. Jewelry companies must take responsibility for their supply chains.”

“The prevalence of child labor in the jewelry supply chains is a major concern,” said Reid Maki, NCL’s director of child labor advocacy and coordinator of the CLC. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, child labor is found in gold mining in 21 countries. Child labor is also used to produce silver in Bolivia, rubies and jade in Burma, and diamonds in six African countries. In the Philippines, children do compression mining of gold, submerged under muddy water while they breathe air through flimsy plastic hoses.

A young miner surfaces after spending an hour at the bottom of a compressor mine in the Philippines. Image by Larry C. Price, 2012.

Today, the NGOs and trade unions are issuing a Call to Action to the jewelry industry calling on companies to:

  • Put in place and implement a robust supply chain due diligence policy;
  • Ensure full chain of custody over gold and diamonds by requiring evidence of business transactions and their transport routes from their suppliers;
  • Assess and respond to human rights risks throughout their supply chains, and ensuring that workers have a right to unionize and access to effective remedy;
  • Use independent third-party audits;
  • Publicly report on their human rights due diligence on an annual basis;
  • Publish the names of gold and diamond suppliers and their independent third-party audit mechanisms;
  • Actively seek gold and diamonds from artisanal and small-scale mines that are not associated with human rights violations and willing to formalize;
  • Improve human rights conditions in artisanal and small-scale mining communities;
  • Support multi-stakeholder initiatives designed to strengthen responsible minerals sourcing and work with mining cooperatives and trade unions.*

“Through this ‘Call to Action’ and the accompanying campaign, we hope to see real engagement and transformation of the jewelry industry,” said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum and chair of the CLC’s International Issues Committee.

The CLC also applauds Human Rights Watch’s new report, “The Hidden Cost of Jewelry: Human Rights in Supply Chains and the Responsibility of Jewelry Companies,” which examines the sourcing of gold and diamonds by 13 major jewelry and watch brands that generate more than $30 billion in annual revenue in the United States.

*The campaign action steps are spelled out in greater detail by Human Rights Watch on its web site.

About the Child Labor Coalition

The Child Labor Coalition, which has 38 member organizations, represents consumers, labor unions, educators, human rights and labor rights groups, child advocacy groups, and religious and women’s groups. It was established in 1989, and is co-chaired by the National Consumers League and the American Federation of Teachers. Its mission is to protect working youth and to promote legislation, programs, and initiatives to end child labor exploitation in the United States and abroad. The CLC’s website and membership list can be found at StopChildLabor.org.




Child Mining: 10 Facts (click on title if a numbered list does not appear)

boy staning in mine








  1. It is estimated that around 1 million children work in mines throughout the world.
  2. Mining is considered a form of hazardous labor unfit for children under any circumstances, including poverty. Mining can lead to serious injuries; health consequences and an unknown number of children lose their lives while mining every year.
  3. Around the world, children, ages 5-17, work in mines for as little as $2 per day.Because of the relatively small number of child miners (one million), compared to child laborers in agriculture (over 100 million), child mining has not received the attention it deserves. Additionally, mining often takes place in temporary, remote, small-scale locations making it difficult to regulate and monitor.
  4. Because of the relatively small number of child miners (one million), compared to child laborers in agriculture (over 100 million), child mining has not received the attention it deserves. Additionally, mining often takes place in temporary, remote, small-scale locations making it difficult to regulate and monitor.
  5. Children can be found working in mines in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and in parts of Europe.
  6. Work for child miners includes digging shafts, crushing rocks, and carrying ore in gold mines and digging, scraping and lifting in salt mines and carrying and crushing large stones in quarries.
  7. Child miners face many potential health consequences due to the nature of their work including: over-exertion , respiratory ailments, headaches, joint problems, hearing and vision loss.
  8. In addition to the risks faced by all child miners, children miners in gold also face potential side effects from working with Mercury. Mercury is a highly toxic substance used to extract gold. Mercury poisoning can affect a person’s brain, heart, kidneys, and lungs. Additionally, Mercury poisoning is extremely detrimental to children, affecting their nervous system development leading to long-term developmental disabilities.
  9. Children are often forced into mines by poverty. Human Rights Watch, a CLC member,  believes that the boycott of goods produced from mines where children work is not the answer. Reducing the income of already impoverished communities can lead to higher levels of children labor. Instead, companies and their supplies need to work to initiate programs removing children from the supply chain.Western countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom are top destinations for products of child mining. Consumers often buy diamonds, gold and precious gems from retailers with disregard to the origin of their jewelry and the human toll that helped produce it.
  10. Western countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom are top destinations for products of child mining. Consumers often buy diamonds, gold and precious gems from retailers with disregard to the origin of their jewelry and the human toll that helped produce it.


  1.  https://www.ilo.org/ipec/areas/Miningandquarrying/lang–en/index.htm
  2. https://www.ilo.org/ipec/areas/Miningandquarrying/lang–en/index.htm
  3. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/world-july-dec13-burkinafaso_07-10/
  4. https://www.ilo.org/ipec/areas/Miningandquarrying/lang–en/index.htm
  5. https://www.ilo.org/ipec/areas/Miningandquarrying/lang–en/index.htm
  6. ILO “Child labor in Salt Mining: The Problem”, ILO: “Child labor in Stone Quarrying: The Problem, Global March: https://www.globalmarch.org/content/children-engaged-unsafe-mining
  7. ILO “Child Labour in Gold Mining: The Problem”, EPA https://www.epa.gov/hg/effects.htm
  8.  ILO “Child Labour in Gold Mining: The Problem”, EPA https://www.epa.gov/hg/effects.htm
  9. Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/09/11/africas-child-mining-shame
  10. Global March: https://www.globalmarch.org/content/children-engaged-unsafe-mining

CLC Member Human Rights Watch Press Release: Tanzania — Hazardous Life of Child Gold Miners

For Immediate Release

Tanzania: Hazardous Life of Child Gold Miners
Government, World Bank, Donors Should Address Child Labor in Mines

Two 13 year old boys digging for gold in a mine in Mbeya region, Tanzania. (c) 2013 Justin Purefoy


(Dar Es Salaam, August 28, 2013) – Children as young as eight-years-old are working in Tanzanian small-scale gold mines, with grave risks to their health and even their lives, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Tanzanian government should curb child labor in small-scale mining, including at informal, unlicensed mines, and the World Bank and donor countries should support these efforts.

The 96-page report, “Toxic Toil: Child Labor and Mercury Exposure in Tanzania’s Small-Scale Gold Mines,” describes how thousands of children work in licensed and unlicensed small-scale gold mines in Tanzania, Africa’s fourth-largest gold producer. They dig and drill in deep, unstable pits, work underground for shifts of up to 24 hours, and transport and crush heavy bags of gold ore. Children risk injury from pit collapses and accidents with tools, as well as long-term health damage from exposure to mercury, breathing dust, and carrying heavy loads. A 17-year-old boy who survived a pit accident told Human Rights Watch, “I thought I was dead, I was so frightened.”

“Tanzanian boys and girls are lured to the gold mines in the hopes of a better life, but find themselves stuck in a dead-end cycle of danger and despair,” said Janine Morna, children’s rights research fellow at Human Rights Watch. “Tanzania and donors need to get these children out of the mines and into school or vocational training.”

Many children who work in mining are orphans or other vulnerable children who lack basic necessities and support. Human Rights Watch also found that girls on and around mining sites face sexual harassment, including pressure to engage in sex work. Some girls become victims of commercial sexual exploitation and risk contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.

Human Rights Watch visited 11 mining sites in Geita, Shinyanga, and Mbeya regions, and interviewed more than 200 people, including 61 children working in small-scale gold mining. The employment of children in dangerous mining work is one of the worst forms of child labor under international agreements, to which Tanzania is a party.

“On paper, Tanzania has strong laws prohibiting child labor in mining, but the government has done far too little to enforce them,” Morna said. “Labor inspectors need to visit both licensed and unlicensed mines regularly, and ensure employers face sanctions for using child labor.”

Child laborers, as well as children living near mining sites, are at serious risk of mercury poisoning. Mercury attacks the central nervous system and can cause lifelong disability to children, whose developing bodies are more easily affected by the heavy metal. The miners, including children, mix mercury with crushed ground ore and burn the resulting gold-mercury amalgam to release the gold, exposing them to poisonous mercury fumes. Even small children who are not working are often present during this process, which is sometimes carried out in the home.

Most adult and child miners are unaware of these health risks. Health workers lack training and facilities and are not equipped to diagnose or treat mercury poisoning. Existing laws and initiatives on mercury have largely failed to reduce mercury use.

Tanzania has helped craft a new global treaty to reduce mercury exposure worldwide, which more than 140 governments agreed upon in January 2013. The Minamata Convention on Mercury, named for the site in Japan of a mercury poisoning disaster half a century ago, will be adopted in October near Minamata.

“Tanzania helped bring about the Minamata Convention on Mercury,” Morna said. “Now, to protect the future of its own people and of its own growing mining industry, it needs to take the lead to protect its children – by monitoring, testing, and treating them for mercury exposure and getting them out of the mines.”

Working in the mines interferes with children’s education. Children working in mining sometimes skip classes or drop out of school altogether. Teachers told Human Rights Watch that school attendance and performance decreased when a gold mine opened nearby. In addition, many adolescents seek full-time employment, including in mining, because they lack access to secondary school or vocational training.

A 15-year-old boy in the Geita district summed up the impact of mining on his life: “It is difficult to combine mining and school. I don’t get time to go through tutoring [which takes place on the weekends]. I wonder about the mine, it distracts me…. One day … I fell sick [after mining and missed classes]. I had pain all over my body.”

The Tanzanian government should expand access to secondary school and vocational training and improve child protection, Human Rights Watch said. The government and donors should provide financial and political backing for the new action plan on the most vulnerable children and include orphans from mining areas in the Tanzania Social Action Fund’s program of grants and conditional cash transfers to vulnerable populations.

The World Bank and other donors to the mining sector should also support steps to end child labor in mining and reduce the exposure of children and adults to mercury, Human Rights Watch said. For example, they should help children transition from work in unlicensed mines to schooling, and ensure that newly licensed mines do not use child labor. A current US$55 million World Bank project to support the mining sector does not directly address child labor.

The gold industry has a responsibility to ensure it does not benefit directly or indirectly from unlawful child labor, Human Rights Watch said. Yet most gold traders Human Rights Watch interviewed in Tanzania had no procedures to keep gold mined by children out of their supply chains.

Small traders typically purchase gold directly at the mines or in mining towns and then sell it to larger traders in Tanzania. Sometimes the gold passes through several intermediaries before reaching the traders who export the gold. According to the Tanzanian government, small-scale miners produced about 1.6 tons of gold in 2012 – worth about US$85 million.

The top destination for gold from Tanzanian small-scale mines is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Gold is also exported to Switzerland, South Africa, China, and the United Kingdom.

“Whether small or large, Tanzanian or global, businesses should avoid becoming entangled with unlawful child labor in their supply chain,” Morna said. “As those with the buying power, gold traders have leverage over their suppliers. They should use it to protect children and to protect consumers from buying gold tainted by child labor.”

For selected accounts from the report, please see below.

“Toxic Toil: Child Labor and Mercury Exposure in Tanzania’s Small-Scale Gold Mines” is available at:

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Tanzania, please visit:

For more information, please contact:
In Dar Es Salaam, Janine Morna (English): + 255-75-778-3770; or + 1-646-575-6400; or mornaj@hrw.org  
In Dar Es Salaam, Juliane Kippenberg (English, French, German): +255-75-905-7955; or +1-917-213-4228; or kippenj@hrw.org
In New York, Zama Coursen-Neff (English): +1 917-519-6512; or +212-216-1826; or neffcz@hrw.org; or follow on twitter @ZamaHRW
In Nairobi, Agnes Odhiambo (English, Swahili): +254-72967-1187 (mobile); or odhiama@hrw.org

Accounts from Tanzanian child miners in “Toxic Toil”
“I was digging with my colleague. I entered into a short pit. When I was digging he told me to come out, and when I was about to come out, the shaft collapsed on me, reaching the level of my chest … they started rescuing me by digging the pit and sent me to Chunya hospital.” – 13-year-old boy, Chunya district, December 2012

“One time the pit collapsed. It was September last year. I thought I was dead, I was so frightened. I was digging down and I went horizontally and then the rest of the land slid. I was just behind the landslide, not inside. Two of my friends [both adults] who were on the other side died. I was so scared. I just cried and despaired.” – 17-year-old boy, Kahama district, October 2012

“I was hurt from the instrument I use to dig. I was drilling. I was sent to hospital. I hurt a toe. The whole nail was peeled off. I took medicine. When I was drilling I drilled on the stone and then the instrument lost direction and landed on my foot…. I was 12 [when the accident happened].” – 13-year-old boy, Chunya district, December 2012

“[I] once knocked till my nail was removed. I was taken to a hospital and they put a bandage…. I was seven years old. It was a hammer that hit me…. [I am] scared a lot, nowadays I do not prefer crushing, I do other processes.” – 10-year-old girl, Kahama district, December 2012

“A lot of men approach me … always showing me money…. Sex work is very common. [There are] many women coming from town…. I had a friend who is doing that. Most of those are working in the bar. Sometimes they stay here [on the mine] … they sacrifice themselves in the forest. They create a hut and stay.” – 15-year-old girl working in mining, Chunya district, December 2012

“It’s a bad situation here. There are no latrines and no water for bathing…. I do not like it here. Men want to have relationships…. A guy came to the restaurant and said I want you to be my girlfriend and to make you laugh, because I love you … Later when I refused, he said I was foolish. There have been many other cases like this. Some come to buy you food or soft drinks…. I would like to go to Mwanza [the capital of the region] and get tuition to go to school there again.” – 16-year-old girl selling food on a mining site, Kahama district, October 2012


***To view video:
***To download raw footage and photos:



USDOL to Fund $9 Million Project for Child Labor Remediation in Colombia’s Mining Sector

News Release

ILAB News Release: [05/20/2013]
Contact Name: Gloria Della or Egan Reich
Phone Number: (202) 693-4679 or x4960
Della.Gloria.D@dol.gov or Reich.Egan.2@dol.gov
Release Number: 13-0972-NAT

$9 million in funding available from US Labor Department to reduce child labor in Colombia

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs today announced a $9 million competitive grant solicitation for one or more projects to reduce child labor in the artisanal mining sector of Colombia.

Thousands of children work in Colombia’s mining sector, where they labor alongside adults and are exposed to physical injuries, dangerous tools, hazardous substances, toxic gases and explosions. Many people are not aware that children face these hazards.

One or more qualifying organizations will receive funding to support Colombia’s efforts to identify and combat child labor in the mining sector, including by increasing educational opportunities for children and improving the livelihoods of families involved in artisanal mining. The project(s) will address occupational safety concerns to reduce the risk of injuries to adult miners and the corresponding loss of household income that can contribute to child labor. In addition, the project(s) will improve interagency coordination to provide social services to children engaged in mining and fund an exchange program with other countries to share strategies on activities covered by the grant(s).

Applications must be submitted by July 19 at 5 p.m. EDT electronically via https://www.grants.gov or as hard copies mailed to the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Procurement Services, 200 Constitution Ave. NW, Room S-4307, Washington, DC 20210, Attention: Brenda White.

All awards will be made by Sept. 30. The solicitation for grant applications (SCA 13-06) is available online at https://www.dol.gov/ILAB/grants/ and https://www.grants.gov.


High Price of Gold is Child Slave Labor


By Jeanette Pavini

Award-winning broadcast journalist and author Jeanette Pavini writes the Buyer Beware column for MarketWatch and wants to hear your stories, questions, problems and complaints. Write to her at BuyerBewareMKTW@gmail.com .

SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — Gold has been one of the greatest investment stories of the past decade, and its safe-haven appeal is likely to continue, with demand remaining solid for physical gold and gold jewelry. But regardless of the price gyrations in gold futures and demand, do we really know what the cost of gold is in human terms?

The surge in demand for physical gold has not only polished the fortunes of large mining companies, but has also driven a modern-day gold rush: The United Nations estimates there are between 15 million and 20 million gold miners in more than 70 countries worldwide.

What consumers need to be aware of is where the gold GLD -0.07%   and gold jewelry they purchase originates from. For the most part, gold comes from large-scale industrial mining operations which require skilled labor. Large mining operations in developing country can spur economic growth for the region.

But some artisanal and small-scale mining operations, known as ASMs, operate in poorer regions and places where child exploitation and human trafficking is common. Read more


Afghanistan vows to “set standards” on Child Labor in Mines

By Michelle Nichols


(Reuters) – For around $2 a day some Afghan children as young as 10 work long hours in the country’s coal mines with no safety gear and, until now, no government mining policy to protect them.

While national law allows Afghan children to work up to 35 hours a week from the age of 14, they are not allowed to do hazardous jobs such as mining. But after 30 years of conflict and with many children the sole family breadwinners, aid and rights groups say the laws are flouted and not enforced.

As Afghanistan tries to attract foreign investors to develop an estimated $3 trillion worth of untapped mineral deposits, Mines Minister Wahidullah Shahrani has been working to expand and clean up the industry and has drafted a policy officially setting the minimum age for coal mine workers at 18.

“We drafted the first-ever social policy guidelines to make sure that when it comes to the labor force, and when it comes to health and safety, and most importantly on the issue of child labor, we will have some type of standards,” he told Reuters.

“Previously we did not have any official policy at the Ministry of Mines.”

The guidelines are due to be implemented in the next few months and mining inspectors would be employed to ensure the rules are upheld, Shahrani said. But critics have questioned the government’s capacity to manage the mining industry.

Since Shahrani became minister at the start of 2010, he has drawn up the ministry’s first business plan and signed Afghanistan to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) as a candidate country. He was optimistic that by April 2012 Afghanistan would get full EITI compliant status.

Afghanistan’s rich mineral deposits have been trumpeted as the key to future prosperity, but experts say the bounty is many years, even decades, away and point to massive security and infrastructure challenges for potential investors.

The country however has already awarded a contract to China’s top copper producer, Jiangxi Copper Co, and China Metallurgical Group Corp for the big Aynak mine south of Kabul.

Shahrani is due to award another large contract in November for what the government describes as Asia’s largest untapped iron ore deposit, the Hajigak mine, that straddles the provinces of Bamiyan, Parwan and Maidan Wardak.


About 200 children were recently found working in coal mines in central Bamiyan province, according to separate studies by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and by the Child Protection Action Network, a joint initiative with aid groups including the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, where children make up half the population, and a quarter of children die before the age of five.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission found that children were working in some mines run by the government, which Shahrani acknowledged, although he said there was “not that many.” He blamed 30 years of conflict for pushing impoverished families to allow children to work in mines.

“All those years have been a difficult period for the people,” he said.

The U.S. Geological Survey has found Afghanistan has “moderate to potentially abundant” coal resources, although most of it is relatively deep or currently inaccessible.

It is mainly used for powering small industries — such as cement production, textile manufacturing and food processing — and as a primary source of household fuel, it said.

Child labor in Afghanistan is not restricted to mining.

There are about 1.2 million Afghan children in part- or full-time work, the government says, in a country where war, poverty, widespread unemployment and a preference for large families have created a huge underage labor market.

A 2010 study by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission found that an even larger portion of the country’s 15 million children — up to 40 percent — were likely to be engaged in some sort of paid work.

Abdul Ahad Farzam, head of the commission in Bamiyan, said because many mines were often located in remote areas where children are exposed to the dangers associated with coal mining — cancer and respiratory illnesses caused by the dust and gases, which can also cause underground explosions.

“We are afraid of child abuse because they stay all night and day there together (at the mines),” he said.

(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Paul Tait and Ed Lane)


Children Working in one of the world’s most dangerous mines in Bolivia

Thomas Nybo, UNICEF

POTOSÍ, Bolivia, (June 14, 2011) — Thirteen-year-old Agustin’s life revolves around mining. He lives in a shack right outside the entrance to a mine shaft at the famous Cerro Rico mine in the city of Potosí, where he worked two hard years digging for ore from the age of nine.

UNICEF’s Thomas Nybo reports on young Bolivian children working in one of the most dangerous mines in the world.

Back then, the older miners would only pay him the equivalent of $3 per day, so he quit and now leads tours of the mine instead.

Cerro Rico, which means ‘rich mountain’, has been called one of the most dangerous mines in the world. It’s been in operation for more than 400 years, and once held the richest supply of silver in the Americas.

“There aren’t too many children working here – it’s too dangerous,” Agustin says. “To get the minerals here, you need to go deep into the mine. Most kids work in mines that are less deep and easier.”

Read more


Save the Children

Editorial Mindinao Times

Written by: Times Editors , Times Editors

The plan of the regional office to investigate child labor in mining areas is long overdue.
On Tuesday, Regional Director Joffrey Suyao said his agency will look into reports that children were being employed in small scale mining areas. Suyao, who faced the media in the region for the first time after being named to the position, said he has heard from reports that children were among those who were killed in the Good Friday landslide in a small scale mining site in Kingking, Pantukan, Compostela Valley that claimed scores of lives.

The employment of children in small scale mining areas is a fact. One just has to visit any of the small scale mining sites in the country, not just the region, and find for himself or herself that children who can barely carry a 20-kilo sack are made to carry such a load to a length that even a grownup will find difficult.

The sad fact is that in some cases, it is the parents who pushed their children to work in very difficult situations. These children may want to protest, but the waiting belts have pushed them to continue working.

The harsh condition, the danger and the deprivation of basic needs are just one aspect that these children are facing while working in these mining sites. The fact that all facets of their growth are compromised is what must be given more attention.

So it is high time not only for the government, but also for their parents to find ways on how to take them away from these areas.

May we, therefore, call on Regional Director Suyao to make good his statement, something that his predecessors have failed to look into? It is high time that these children are sent to schools rather than exposed to danger.


Nearly 1 million children work full time in Bolivia’s tin mines, in cemeteries, on buses, or in the markets.

BY HELEN COSTER (International Reporting Project & Foreign Policy | NOVEMBER 18, 2010

POTOSÍ, Bolivia—Edwin Choquevilla is the primary breadwinner in his family, earning $7 a day pushing a wheelbarrow inside Bolivia’s Cerro Rico mine. He spends his money on food and clothing for his mother and three siblings, who live in a 600-square-foot cement hut that doubles as a storage shack for wheelbarrows, canisters of gasoline, and clusters of dynamite. But unlike most of the other 15,000 miners who work in the Cerro Rico mine, Choquevilla wants to be a soccer star when he grows up. He is, after all, only 14 years old. “I need to help my family,” Choquevilla says. “Hopefully next year, I can go back to school.”

Choquevilla is one of an estimated 1,000 children who work in Cerro Rico — “the hill of wealth” — Bolivia’s most famous and fertile mine. In the 16th century, silver from Cerro Rico bankrolled the Spanish empire, and at one point, Potosí was one of the wealthiest towns in the world. But production peaked in 1650 and then went into a century-long decline when Mexico entered the market. Over the next 200 years, demand for silver and other minerals ebbed and flowed — and with it, miners’ fortunes. The Bolivian government nationalized the mining industry after the 1952 revolution. The state mining company, Corporacíon Minera Boliviana (Comibol), controlled the mines until the government privatized the industry in the 1980s. Today 36 private cooperatives control Cerro Rico, where miners risk their lives to extract silver, zinc, tin, and lead. But child miners aren’t just doing their boss’s bidding: They’re also organizing to defend their rights.

Across Bolivia, 10,000 working children — employed by the mines, but also cemeteries, markets, and buses — are unionizing and working with the government to rewrite labor laws. “We’re asking the government to come up with laws not because they sound good, but because they’re realistic,” says Ernesto Copa, the 17 year-old president of UNATSBO, Bolivia’s largest union of child workers. “We’re in a state of mobilization.”

Bolivian children entered the workforce en masse in the 1980s, when the privatization of national industries forced more than 100,000 adults out of work. Today child labor is ubiquitous; an estimated 800,000 children in Bolivia work full time jobs. In the capital city of La Paz, children shine shoes while wearing ski masks — to protect their lungs from pollution, or their identities out of shame, depending on whom you ask. In Cochabamba, they collect money on minibuses. In Uyuni, on the edge of the spectacular Salar de Uyuni salt flats, they work in the market selling bottled water to tourists. In the jungle outside Riberalta, they harvest Brazil nuts for several months of the year, risking malaria, snake bites, and wounds from machetes.

In 1995, NGOs like Caritas and CARE started offering education and other services for working children, who soon began organizing on their own. Children who work in cemeteries unionized in 1999, and children who work in the markets and bus terminals soon followed. Today UNATSBO — which includes children from many different sectors — has chapters in seven of Bolivia’s nine states and 600 members in Potosí alone. While some children in Bolivia begin working as early as age 5, most who join unions do so when they’re 11 or 12, often at the encouragement of older friends. “That’s when they understand what’s going on around them and that their human rights are being violated,” says Luz Rivera Daza, an educator with Caritas, an NGO that works with unionized children.

The Bolivian labor force is organized, to a point. Some groups — like coca farmers, truck drivers, and miners — began unionizing in the 1970s in response to military and political repression. They experienced pushback from the government, and occasional violence. When the government privatized industries in the 1980s, the mining union in particular grew in influence and exerted its power over the cooperatives.

Now is a particularly opportune moment for the unions to pursue new legal protections. Encouraged by President Evo Morales, a coca farmer and the country’s first indigenous president, Bolivians approved a new constitution last year, and legislators are currently in the process of rewriting existing laws to conform to the new legal code. The children’s unions are pushing lawmakers to reform the Code of Children and Adolescents, which governs child labor. In its current form, the code sets the legal working age at 14, and it doesn’t distinguish between labor and exploitation.

Unionized child workers and their advocates argue that because child labor is a necessity born of poverty, it can’t and shouldn’t be eradicated. But they want the government and NGOs to differentiate between child labor — which they see as an economic necessity — and exploitation, which is how they characterize children working in dangerous jobs, like mining, and harvesting Brazil nuts and sugar cane. “We need to focus on eradicating abusive work,” says Jorge Domic, a child psychologist and director of social education at Fundación La Paz, a Bolivian NGO. “If we propose to end all forms of child labor, we’re not going to do it. We’ll just have more clandestine labor in an even worse form than it currently exists.”

Instead, child-workers unions want to ensure that children earn the same wages and have the same financial tools as their adult counterparts. In some sectors, they earn less than half the salary of their adult colleagues. Moreover, children don’t have access to savings accounts and often give their earnings directly to their parents.

Union members also lobby for safe work environments. The mines, in particular, are notoriously dangerous. Sixty adolescents died in Bolivia’s mines in 2008 alone, according to Roberto Fernandez, coordinator of NGO Yachaj Mosoj (“New Knowledge” in Quechua), which runs education programs for children in Potosí. “One of our fears is that Cerro Rico is going to crumble like the Twin Towers, floor by floor,” says Fernandez.

The unions are also pushing for better medical care, especially for children whose jobs present a health risk. Most miners eventually develop silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling large quantities of silica dust. According to Gualberto Astorga Quiróz, a pulmonologist at the state-run lung clinic in Potosí, many workers show symptoms of silicosis after only eight to ten years of working underground. Miners tend to work for an average of 15 or 20 years. A child who starts working in the mines when he’s 8 or 10 years old would likely need supplemental oxygen to breathe by the time he’s 20. There’s psychological damage, too. “The problem is that in the long term every miner adult or child knows that when they go to work, they may not come home that day,” says Astorga. “Every day you say goodbye to your family. Psychologically, this creates an acceptance of death, both for the workers and their families.”

But just as important as the unions’ political goals are the tangible social benefits they offer their members: the opportunity for the children to develop confidence, a sense of community, and the chance to joke around with kids their own age. At a recent evening meeting of a regional union of child workers in Potosí, eight young attendees — who work in the markets, cemeteries, and mines — showed up. The majority live with their parents, most of whom don’t belong to unions. All the children attend school. They were tired, more interested in teasing their adult supervisor than in focusing on the night’s agenda: selecting a member of their union to represent the group at an upcoming meeting with the Ministry of Health. They listened to music and played computer games while they waited for the supervisor to call the meeting to order. But in only a few hours, they will have to report to work.

Tomorrow, a couple of them will rejoin Thomas Delgado, who is 11 years old. He earns $21 a day pushing a wheelbarrow inside Cerro Rico, working from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. He attends school from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. His father, a miner, died when he was 2, and Delgado uses his earnings to buy food for his mother and six siblings. Every morning he chews coca for energy, sharing a bag of leaves with colleagues who tower over him. Then he enters the mine. “I realize it’s dangerous,” he says. “It’s very dark. There’s no light except for the head lamps. I’m not scared now, but the first time I went in, I was scared. It’s better to work outside, sweeping the entrance to the mines, because inside people die.”