(Manila) – The Philippine government is failing to protect children who dig and dive for gold in dangerous small-scale mines, Human Rights Watch said today in a new report and video, released ahead of Children’s Month in the Philippines.
The 39-page report, “What…if Something Went Wrong: Hazardous Child Labor in Small-Scale Gold Mining in the Philippines” documents how thousands of Filipino children – some just 9 years old – work in illegal, small-scale gold mines, mostly financed by local businessmen. Children work in unstable 25-meter-deep pits or underwater along the coastal shore or in rivers, and process gold with mercury, a toxic metal. In September 2014, a 17-year-old boy suffocated in an underground mine because there was no machine providing oxygen. The Philippine government should act on its public commitment to end child labor in mining, Human Rights Watch said.
“Filipino children are working in absolutely terrifying conditions in small-scale gold mines,” said Juliane Kippenberg, associate children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The Philippine government prohibits dangerous child labor, but has done very little to enforce the law.”
Human Rights Watch conducted field research in Camarines Norte and Masbate provinces in 2014 and 2015. More than 135 people were interviewed, including 65 child miners between the ages of 9 and 17. Beyond the fears of mine collapses and drowning, the children complained of numerous health problems, including back and body pain, skin infections, fevers, and spasms.
In underground mines, children risk injury from falling rocks and wood beams, pit collapse, and lack of oxygen.
Underwater mining for gold, locally known as “compressor mining,” puts adult and child miners at risk of drowning, decompression sickness, and bacterial skin infections. Staying underwater for several hours at a time in 10-meter-deep shafts, the miners receive air from a tube attached to an air compressor at the surface. This work is carried out by adolescent boys and – mostly – adult men. Several boys described moments of fear when they dived for the first time. Fourteen-year-old “Dennis” said: “I was 13 the first time [I dived]. I felt scared because it’s dark and deep.” If the diesel-powered compressor stops working, the miner can drown or get “the bends” coming up too quickly. “Sometimes you have to make it up fast, especially if you have no air in your hose,” said “Joseph,” 16. “It’s a normal thing. It’s happened to me.”
The Philippine government in recent years has taken some important steps to ensure education for all, but the number of out-of-school children in the country remains high. Children, mostly from impoverished households, skip school because of their mining work and sometimes drop out altogether.
“Lots of children in Masbate and Camarines Norte are dropping out of school to work in gold mining,” Kippenberg said. “In order to tackle the root causes of child labor, the government needs to assist the poorest families financially and ensure their children are able to attend and stay in school.”