Digging for survival: Child miners’ realities

Panudda Boonpala


Somewhere in the world at this very moment, in a mine or a quarry, a child is hard at work. They may be labouring underground in stifling heat and darkness. They might be carrying loads of coal and ore that will permanently damage their backs. They could be breaking stones in a quarry, working with dangerous chemicals or explosives or facing other hazards.

They do this because the tiny sums of money they earn are crucial to give them and their families the basic necessities of life. There are over one million of these children worldwide. They are literally digging for survival. While many forms of child labour are harmful to children those who work in the mining sector are in particular danger, labouring in conditions that pose a serious risk to their health and wellbeing, exposing them to daily risk of serious injury or death. For example, some 10-15,000 children work in Mongolia’s informal gold mines, and those numbers double in the school holidays. The children start as young as eight. 10 or 11 hour days are common, six or seven days a week. In addition to doing most of the tasks that adults also do the children are seen as particularly useful because they can wriggle into smaller tunnels. The dangers they face include unstable excavations, rock dust, explosives, toxic chemicals, violence, extreme cold and heat. Alarmingly, about half the children work with mercury (which is used to refine the gold ore).

Injuries are tragically common. Nearly half the child miners suffer from pain in their spines and limbs. 28 per cent have kidney or urinary diseases, and the same proportion suffer from fatigue. The remote location means that services like education, clean water and medical care are minimal to non-existent. So injuries and health problems will have a lifelong effect

Because the income these children earn is crucial to the survival of their families, education is not an option for many child miners, even if they could reach a school. In Nepal (where girls as well as boys work long hours in quarries) Sudha began work as a stone crusher when she was just 12 years old. Her wages, though small, are now an important part of her family’s income, supplementing their small earnings from livestock farming. Sometimes Sudha’s brother, sister and her parents also work as stone crushers. Their combined efforts earn them 1400 rupees (780 Baht) a week. Although the local school is only a short walk from her home Sudha does not consider education an option. She wants to go to school but says simply that it’s too late for her now. Contemplating her back-breaking and dangerous work Sudha sighs and stares at the sky. “There is no alternative”, she says. This is her destiny, her pre-ordained role in life.

However I believe that, for Sudha and hundreds of thousands like her, life can be better. Through its International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), the International Labour Organization (ILO) is working worldwide to ensure that children no longer have to toil in quarries or mines. But bringing about change demands an understanding

of the complex nature of the problem. Most child miners are employed in small-scale enterprises which are unregulated and often undocumented. Without accurate information about the scale of the problem, it is difficult to put in place effective measures to deal with it.

Many mining enterprises are family-run, with the money from mining often ensuring the family’s survival. Children cannot be withdrawn from work unless adequate alternative sources of support for their family are in place. In addition former child miners must be given access to good quality education, with real prospects of decent work when they leave school.

This is the only real way of breaking the cycle of poverty which afflicts their communities.

Pilot projects by ILO-IPEC in Mongolia, Nepal and the Philippines have shown that the best way to help child miners is to work with the children’s own families and communities. So, mining and quarrying communities are being helped to organise themselves into cooperatives.

Another important strategy is to improve their productivity by acquiring machinery, so reducing or eliminating the need for child labour. They are also being helped to develop essential services such as schools, clean water and sanitation systems. But while these on-the-ground projects can help child miners, only worldwide awareness of their plight can mobilise international action to end the practice for good. In the meantime, all around the world, thousands of children are still hard at work, digging for survival.

(Panudda Boonpala is senior child labour specialist, ILO Bangkok)