Children pan for gold in a river in Camarines Norte province. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
Thousands of children, some as young as nine, are working in illegal gold mines in the Philippines, according to Human Rights Watch.
"The Philippine government prohibits dangerous child labor, but has done very little to enforce the law," said Juliane Kippenberg, associate children's rights director at Human Rights Watch.
The claims were contained in the 39-page report "What … if Something Went Wrong: Hazardous Child Labor in Small-Scale Gold Mining in the Philippines" released in Manila Sept. 30.
In the report, the New York-based rights group revealed that thousands of children work in unstable 25-meter-deep pits or underwater and process gold with mercury, a toxic metal.
In March, the Philippine government banned the use of mercury in mining, but little has been done to enforce this regulation, the report said.
"Despite efforts, such as laws and programs to address child laborers ... the working conditions of child laborers inside and outside the mines continue to worsen," said Anna Leah-Escresa Colina, executive director of the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research.
Aside from the physical hazards, the children were also vulnerable to social ones, Colina told ucanews.com.
A study conducted by her organization found that child laborers work for 10- to 18-hours a day, and in "extreme cases", for 24 hours straight inside the tunnels, she said.
"They are forced to use illegal drugs to keep them awake inside the tunnels," Colina added.
Mining and development
Father Edwin Gariguez, executive secretary of the social action secretariat of the Philippine bishops' conference, said the Human Rights Watch report "further confirms the negative social impact of mining to host communities and the exploitation this causes for the sake of profit."
The Philippines is the world's 20th largest gold producer.
An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people work in the country's small-scale gold mines.
Father Gariguez, who also heads Caritas Philippines, said the report "belies the claim that mining brings development."
"On the contrary, mining oppresses the poor," the priest said.
The Human Rights Watch report also noted that "beyond the fears of mine collapses and drowning, children complained of numerous health problems, including back and body pain, skin infections, fevers, and spasms."
"Filipino children are working in absolutely terrifying conditions," said Kippenberg.
She said the report was based on field research conducted in Camarines Norte and Masbate provinces in 2014 and 2015.
More than 135 people were interviewed, including 65 child miners between the ages of 9 and 17.
"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 causes of child labor, the government needs to assist the poorest families financially and ensure their children are able to attend and stay in school," she said.
The Human Rights Watch report also said that children, unaware of the health risks, use their bare hands to mix mercury with gold ore to create an amalgam.
In the mining village of Malaya in Camarines Norte province, Human Rights Watch said it observed the unrestricted flow of light-grey, mercury-contaminated tailings from gold processing into a nearby river, where children played, swam, and panned for gold.
"The Philippine government should be introducing mercury-free gold processing ... to reduce the threat to all children," the report said.