John Mark started working in a small-scale gold mine when he was as young as four years old by giving his father a hand in processing gold with mercury. After ten years, 14 year-old John Mark is now a full-time worker in a small-scale mining site at Compostela Valley Province in Mindanao.
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Mining is considered as one of the world’s most hazardous occupations. Miners continuously experience poor ventilation and are helplessly exposed to dust, fumes, and other hazardous chemicals.
According to the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER), around 14 percent of the total population of children residing in mining communities work in mines. Children as young as five years old are tasked to carry heavy sacks of rocks, fetch buckets of water, load wood unto trucks— tasks that regular adult miners do.
Especially to children like John Mark, the risks and dangers caused by workers in mines is doubled. Working with mercury for gold panning makes children prone to health risks. Mercury is a dangerous chemical which can cause damages in the central nervous system and in the brain and can even cause death. Being exposed to mercury at such a young age, its long-term effects can and may have already caused damage within their bodies.
Hazards and health risks
Children within the mining community often complain about skin infections, fever, and headaches. Many parents even say that some of their children who go to school have a hard time understanding the lessons in class.
Workers in mining areas also encounter intense noise and vibrations for long periods of time during compressor mining or underwater mining for gold.
Human Rights Watch reported that in compressor mining, 13 year olds dive onto a 10-meter shaft, being able to breathe only through a tube run by diesel. Many children have expressed their fears of drowning and suffocation if the tubes attached to the air compressor suddenly fails to work. They also become susceptible to skin disease and even lung cancer as they are forced to stay underwater, without being able to see anything, for two to three hours.
Because of the lack of first aiders and proper safety equipment, mine workers are more susceptible to harm and injuries. The equipment they use for mining is poorly maintained and they lack safety gear such as helmets and gloves making them more prone to cuts and skin infections.
Forced to use drugs
EILER’s baseline study on child labor in mining communities revealed that due to the demanding long hours of working, many 76% of children working in mines have stopped schooling. To be able to sustain the energy needed for mining, some children resort to illegal use of drugs under the tunnels. As young as 12 years old become drug users making them more vulnerable to long-term sickness and forcing them into a life of a drug addict.
Workers in mines dig gold but their wages are kept at a minimum and children even receive lower salaries than adult workers. On average, children only make around Php 130 – Php 150 a day. In the case of John Mark, he works in the mines as a placer, he merely earns Php 200 for his 16 hours of work. Like other miners, he doesn’t receive any bonuses for his service nor do they have any insurance or health benefits.
The people mining communities, like those in Compostela Valley, remain impoverished even if they live along mountains and mountains of gold. Caraga region in Mindanao remains the poorest region in the Philippines despite growth in the region’s gross domestic product with the presence of mining companies. Accrording to DSWD’s survey, half of the region’s population, 1.2 million of 2.4 million are living below the poverty threshold.
As long as miners and their families remain impoverished due to low wages and absence of more sustainable livelihoods, families are continuously pushed to let their children work to lessen the burden of everyday expenses.
Hopes and futures
Despite the sense of pride and purpose working children feel for being able to earn money, EILER notes that many feel despondent into finding a better future for themselves. This is because if children are unable to finish school, it is most likely they will follow after the lives of their parents, which depends highly and solely in the mines.
Thus, John Mark, who finished 3rd grade before he became a full-time miner, perseveres and works hard in order to help his youngest sister with her schooling. He hopes that she will find a better path different from his and his parents’.
Bata Balik Eskwela (BBE), an alternative schooling program, launched by EILER in partnership with CTUHR, Institute for Occupational Health Safety and Development (IOHSAD) and the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines Northern Mindanao (RMP-NMR). The program aims to bring child laborers back to school. Through the BBE program, children may see a life outside the mines where learning can take them. BBE is supported by the European Union.
In mining areas in Compostela Valley and plantation site in Davao del Norte, Bukidnon and Agusan del Sur, communities remain hopeful to end child labor. Recently, they participated in a series of seminars about child labor monitoring held by CTUHR through the Bata Balik Eskwela program. Indeed, amid hardship and poverty communities engages in collective efforts to fully understand and fight against the root causes of child labor and prevent more cases in the future.