Manila (dpa) – Thousands of children as young as 9 are risking their lives to dig and dive for gold in dangerous mines in the Philippines, and the government is failing to protect them, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Wednesday.
The New York-based group said children work in unstable 25-metre-deep pits, underwater, along the coast or in rivers, and process gold with mercury, a toxic metal, throughout the Philippines.
The government has ratified treaties and enacted laws to combat the worst forms of child labour, but it has failed to implement them, said Juliane Kippenberg, the group’s associate children’s rights director and author of the report on hazardous child labour conditions in two provinces in the Philippines.
“The government barely monitors child labor in mining and does not penalize employers or withdraw children from these dangerous work environments,” she said in the report.
Labour Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said she told the Human Rights Watch researchers that the government was taking steps to ensure children are not exposed to hazardous working conditions.
“The fight to save our children from the menace of child labour and its worst forms is continuing and it is our responsibility to win the war for the sake of our children,” she said in a statement.
“We have made progress in taking action to solve this complex and deeply-rooted problem. The task is ongoing, and it is moving on.”
Human Rights Watch said it interviewed 65 child miners aged between 9 and 17 in the eastern provinces of Camarines Norte and Masbate in 2014.
“In underground mines, children risk injury from falling rocks and wood beams, pit collapses and lack of oxygen,” the report said.
“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,” it added.
The report documented one of the most dangerous forms of mining for gold, locally called “compressor mining,” in which the miners stay underwater for hours in 10-metre deep shafts, receiving air from a tube attached to an air compressor at the surface.
“I was 13 the first time,” Dennis, now 14, told Human Rights Watch. “I felt scared because it’s dark and deep. Now, I’m used to it.”
“Sometimes, it feels like your eardrum is going to explode,” he added. “Sometimes if the machine leaks, I smell the fumes. Sometimes I feel dizzy because it’s oil.”
The report warned that most children working in small-scale mines come mostly from impoverished households.
“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 cause of child labour, the government needs to assist the poorest families financially and ensure their children are able to attend and stay in school.”
The Philippines is the world’s 20th largest gold producer. In 2014, the country produced 18 tons of gold worth more than 700 million dollars, according to government statistics.
“Small-scale mining provides a vital livelihood for many Filipinos,” Kippenberg said. “But the government needs to take urgent steps to ensure safe and child-labour-free mining sector so that families can earn an income without putting their children at risk.”