Burden of Gold: Children Mine Workers in Bicol - ILO

VIRAC, Catanduanes: Each day starts early for Aiza, her sister Angeline and their mother Emily.

Today is like any other day in the village of Gumaos, Camarines Norte, where for generations, the search for gold has been many a poor family’s means of survival.

Gold, too, has sent many a young child away from home, school and play to the perils of the mines.

Liza is unsure of her age, but she knows that she’s been working in the mines for as long as she can remember. Aiza learned from her mother, and six-year-old Angeline is now learning from her.

Last year, Aiza’s mother fell ill, and Aiza quit school to bear the burden of earning for the family’s food and her mother’s medical needs.

“Our bodies ache, but we go on. I reached up to Grade 5 only, and I don’t want my children to be like me. I want them to be able to finish school, find a job they like. But I have no money for their education,” says Emily, her mother.

From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. everyday, Aiza, along with other child mine workers, stands in the mercury-laden waters of the gold mines shoveling mud, or bends over her pan while swirling sand, looking out for that shiny speck of dust.

Putting the bits together, gold the size of a grain of rice would earn Aiza roughly P20.

After about two hours of work under a blazing sun, Aiza and Angeline find a speck of gold. The girls know they have to work many more hours to earn enough for the family’s food.

Rico, a 10-year-old child mineworker, had worked two whole days and found only enough to earn him P50. Exhausted, Rico went home, gave his father the money, and hoped to rest.

Neighbors say Rico’s father beats him up each time he goes home with little or no earnings.

Finally, Rico gathered enough courage to run and seek refuge with a neighbor. The village people’s organization and the Barangay Council for the Protection of Children both responded to Rico’s situation.

Aiza, Angeline and Rico are among the child mineworkers in Camarines Norte where small-scale gold mining has been going on for generations. In fact, advocates against child labor were once child mineworkers themselves.

One of these advocates is Pete Romero: “I worked in the mines from Grade 3 until I finished high school. I know what the children are going through: the hard labor and the risks to life.”

In some of these mines, children descend to the bowels of the earth, crawling through narrow, cramped and poorly illuminated makeshift tunnels. The change in atmospheric pressure punctures and permanently damages their ears.

Here, children are at constant risk of lethal accidents from explosives, the collapse of mine walls or roofs and the use of equipment and crude tools designed for adults.

“You then carry your load of rock or earth to the stream and you start panning. You knead the soil, and sometimes you don’t see the bits of glass or nail that are mixed with it and you get cut,” says Romero. “Then, when you think have enough gold bits, you mix in the mercury to make a nugget.”

A health assessment of 80 to 100 kids in coordination with the Occupational Safety and Health Center, and funded by the International Labor Organization, showed that some children were contaminated with mercury.

The growth of those who work the whole day is stunted. They do poorly in school. They develop skin diseases, cough, colds, and fever. Often, they stop going to school altogether, preferring work in the mines to earn money.

Master list

The abuse in small-scale gold mines in the Philippines involves as many as 18,000 children.

In Camarines Norte, knowing the numbers was not enough. Social workers and non-government organizations felt they needed to know more who these children are, so that they can better act on their behalf.

Together, they compiled a master list of child mineworkers, which enabled them to track the situation and put policies and programs in place.

The master list was used to lobby for local ordinances, such as the Camarines Norte Children’s Rights and Welfare Code that bans children from all of forms of hazardous work—not just mining—and to provide starting points for services.

Services such as non-formal education and scholarships are helping to get children back in school and out of the master list. Information dissemination, parents’ education, policymaking and the provision of services are causing change.

Samuel, a child mineworker, still feels compelled to work in the mines to help his family. But he is also determined to stay in school.

Samuel works only on Saturdays and Sundays. “I work on to earn money to buy rice and chocolate milk for my brother Totoy, and to have some money for school,” he says. “There are other kids in school who look for gold to earn a living. They too give their money to their parents to buy food.”

“We were able to conduct 16 classes in six pilot barangays for 395 child laborers, 164 of them girls,” says Lourdes Sacolsan, an education supervisor.

Meanwhile, Rico, the boy who’d found gold but lost his childhood, has found refuge from his father’s violence and abuse. He does not quite know what will happen next.

Asked what he hopes for in life, Rico ponders his answer: “Matutong makabasa’t makasulat [Learn to read and write.]”

Children do not ask for much.
-- Source ILO

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