Photo from Human Rights Watch. Some rights reserved.

Into the deadly deep: Child miners in PH scour underwater mines, dark pits for gold

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Tuesday, 6 October 2015 - Last Updated on October 6, 2015
Photo from Human Rights Watch. Some rights reserved.
Photo from Human Rights Watch. Some rights reserved.

Photo from Human Rights Watch. Some rights reserved.

Filipino children as young as nine years old are working dangerously in illegal, small-scale gold mines with very little government protection, according to a report recently released by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

HRW said children risk their lives searching for gold in deep underwater mines or underground pits particularly in Masbate and Camarines Norte in the Bicol region. The group interviewed 65 child miners between the ages of nine and 17, as well as government officials and community leaders.

“Despite a strong legal and policy framework, the government of the Philippines has not done nearly enough to protect children against the harmful impact of child labor in mining,” the New York-based rights group said in its report titled “What…If Something Went Wrong?” released last Sept. 30.

The group also noted that some of the gold mined by child laborers end up with the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank), which has no process in place to check the conditions in the gold supply chain.

The Philippines prohibits the worst forms of child labor, but cases of children working in artisanal mines and underwater mines persist.

Game of survival

In coastal areas and rivers, children join adult men in compressor mining where a miner dive in 10-meter narrow wooden shafts while receiving air from a tube attached to a diesel-run air compressor at the surface.

Child miners interviewed by HRW recounted how dangerous and scary compressor mining is, as the compressor machine can sometimes stop working.

“Sometimes you have to make it up fast, especially if you have no air in your hose if the machine stops working. It’s a normal thing, it’s happened to me,” 16-year-old Joseph who lives in Masbate told HRW.

HRW said children who work for long periods underwater also suffer itchy and infected skin disease locally called “romborombo” due to the bacteria in the water. They are also exposed to carbon monoxide from the diesel compressors which increase the long-term risk of lung cancer.

In the village of Malaya, Camarines Norte, HRW documented cases of children working in dark pits 25 meters deep and with little air supply, with some boys doing 24-hour shifts.

“One time, when we were down in the pit, my companions were bringing down lumber. The rope around the wood loosened and the lumber fell down on us. Fortunately, we managed to evade it. If not, we would have died there,” a chid miner in Malaya told HRW.

Two underground miners, including 17-year-old Nel Pernecita, died in September 2014 due to lack of oxygen.

There are around 3 million Filipino children under the worst forms of child labor out of the 5.5 million working children based on a survey done by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2011.

The country is ranked 20th among the world’s gold producer, with large and small-scale mines producing 18 tons of gold in 2014 at a market value of over US$700 million.

Exposed to mercury

HRW also documented cases wherein children process gold with mercury, a liquid toxic metal that can cause long-term health impacts and even death.

“Unaware of the health risks, children use their bare hands to mix mercury with gold ore and create an amalgam. When they burn off the mercury to retrieve the raw gold, they breathe in toxic fumes,” HRW said in its report.

The researchers also observed the unrestricted flow of mercury-contaminated tailings to bodies of water in several mining areas.

Certain illnesses of children might be traced to exposure to poisonous chemicals such as mercury, according to toxicologist Dr. Irma Makalinao of the University of the Philippines.

Solving poverty

Juliane Kippenberg, author of the report and associate director in the Children’s Rights division of HRW, said many children in Masbate and Camarines Norte are dropping out of schoold to work in gold mines due to poverty.

“The government should improve child labor monitoring and child protection systems, and do more to reach those who have dropped out of school. It should ensure that its programs to address the ill-effects of poverty, such as free school meals and social support programs, are reaching families in mining areas, who frequently depend on the labor of children for survival,” HRW said.

Kippenberg said child miners from very poor families have “extremely little chance to break out of that cycle of poverty.”

Anna Leah Escresa-Colina, executive director of the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER), said 4 out of 5 of Filipino households (83 percent) with a child miner earn below P5,000 per month.

The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) meanwhile said its regional offices have profiled 75,724 child laborers in 406,887 households, and that its regional offices in Camarines Norte, Masbate and Compostela Valley have dealt with child labor incidence.

The labor department has launched a campaign for child labor-free barangays, wherein villages will be assessed and assisted in eradicating child labor.

But a study done by EILER indicated that the government’s efforts are far from addressing the worst forms of child, as 1 out of 5 households tolerate child labor in hazardous industries such as plantations and mining.

The study, which was supported by the European Union, also showed that 48 percent of surveyed child laborers receive only P130 to P150 a day, while 50 percent of child miners are paid below P100 a day.  “In plantations, not a single child worker would receive P200 for a day’s work. A majority of them work 6 times a week, and most of them toil for 10 hours a day,” it said.

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