The burden of gold Child labour in small-scale mines and quarries

This year's World Day Against Child Labour focused the world's attention on the plight of child labourers in small-scale mines and quarries. The ILO estimates that about one million children aged 5 to 17 are engaged in small-scale mining and quarrying activities worldwide. These children toil under dangerous conditions and go without access to schools, health clinics, and other basic necessities. Pilot programmes are underway with the help of the ILO and its partners to eradicate the need for child labour by building sustainable communities and offering the opportunity for a better future.

CUMAOS, Philippines - For as long as Aiza can remember, her day began earlier than most as she, her sister, and their mother worked to eke out a meagre living at the gold mines in Cumaos. Aiza learned the practice from her mother, and now her six year-old sister is learning from her. When her mother fell ill last year, Aiza had to quit school and work full time to support the family and pay for her mother's medical bills. She is just one of almost 18,000 children who work in the small-scale mining and quarrying sector in the Philippines.

Worldwide, the ILO estimates that close to one million children work in small-scale mines, a practice that fits the definition of a "worst form of child labour" under ILO Convention No. 182. On 12 June, the ILO and its partners organized global celebrations for World Day Against Child Labour (WDACL) to call attention to the problem and mobilize an international effort to end the practice for good.

The harsh reality of child labour in mines and quarries

In mines, children descend to the bowels of the earth to crawl through narrow, cramped, and poorly lit makeshift tunnels where the air is thick with dust. They constantly risk fatal accidents due to falling rock, explosions, collapse of mine walls, and the use of equipment designed for adults.

Interviews with 220 boys and girls working in mines in Nepal showed that the frequency of injury there is very high. Almost 60 per cent of these child workers answered that they have been hurt while at work. In gold mining, children are exposed to toxic mercury, which is used for separ-ating gold out of rock and can permanently damage various organs and the nervous system.

Children are often required to do the same work as adults. In underground mining operations, for example, children work in ore extraction, assist in drilling, push carts, clean galleries, and remove water from the mines. In river mines, they dig and dive for sediments. In mineral concentration, they crush stones, haul minerals, pick gemstones, and wash gold. In the mines of industrial materials, such as clay, coal, and sand, children - often young girls - carry huge loads on their heads and backs, sometimes in extreme heat.

Around the mines and in the household, children prepare food for the miners, haul water, and do other household work. Outside the home, they are frequently found working in bars, restaurants, and even prostitution.

Social and economic aspects

In the countries where small-scale mining and quarrying exists, its economic and social impact is often significant. In Bolivia, mining represents about 40 per cent of the country's foreign currency income coming from mineral exports. More than 30 per cent of the mining exports and 85 per cent of the total employment generated by the sector come from mining cooperatives and other small-scale mines, which are sustained by the participation of all family members, including children and adolescents.

Many of the problems related to small-scale mining and child labour are linked to the fact that mining activities often take place in the informal sector and in remote areas. Informal mining refers to uncontrolled mining activities often undertaken by family members or close relatives without any licence or formal permission.

"The more remote and more informal a small-scale mining activity, the more likely children are to be involved", says ILO mining industry expert Norman Jennings. "The large-scale formal mining sector does not employ children in its operations".

The use of child labour in mining is strongly linked to the poverty that reigns in the remote mining districts where other forms of employment are hard to find. Furthermore, child work is often considered part of the socialization process. In mining communities of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, the population regards boys over 14 as fit to work with adults. Work done by children tends to be considered as "help" and not as work, in the same way as other activities done by children, including caring for animals, woodcutting, and farming activities, are not valued by their parents as work. One step in the elimination of child labourers in mining and quarrying is the parents' recognition that children are doing real work.

Typical for small-scale mining and quarrying is that the whole family is involved in the working process. The working children's contribution to their families, both in terms of work performed and of income generated, is often important. However, many children in mining and quarrying do not get any remuneration for their work, and if they do, their wages are normally inferior to those of adults.

Eliminating child labour in mining and quarrying

Can child labour in mining and quarrying be eliminated? The ILO says yes. Results from different projects aimed at removing children from mines and quarries show that significant achievements can be made.

Child labour issues can only be solved sustainably if an integrated approach is applied. "Direct action should be coupled with local capacity-building and an improvement of the legal and organizational environment", says Guy Thijs, Director of Operations for the ILO International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). "Programmes should address health and social services, legal protection, education, income generation, and alternative employment possibilities for mining families and public awareness-raising".

According to Thijs, "the best results can be obtained if several actors work together. Governments, both on the national and local levels, mining companies, and trade unions should join forces with managers of poverty eradication programmes in mining areas and child labour project staff".

History of child labour conventions

Almost all work performed by children in mining and quarrying is hazardous and considered to be one of the worst forms of child labour. Here is a brief history of child labour Conventions in relation to mining and quarrying:

  • The Minimum Age (Underground Work) Convention, 1965 (No. 123), defined the term "mine" as meaning "any undertaking, whether public or private, for the extraction of any substance from under the surface of the earth by means involving the employment of persons underground", and Article 2 provided that "the minimum age shall in no case be less than 16 years".
  • The Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138), became a basic pillar in the fight against child labour, proposing that each member ratifying the Convention should undertake "to pursue a national policy designed to ensure the effective abolition of child labour and to raise progressively the minimum age for admission to employment".
  • Convention No. 138 defined hazardous work as "any type of employment or work which by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out is likely to jeopardize the health, safety, or morals of young persons".
  • However, it was not until 1999, with the adoption of the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182), which complemented rather than replaced Convention No. 138, that the worst forms of child labour were identified and specific measures for their immediate elimination implemented. By April 2005, 153 of the ILO's 178 member States had ratified this Convention, and by doing so agreed to take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour for children under 18 years of age.

World Day Against Child Labour: Events in 55 countries

The World Day Against Child Labour was marked in every region of the world on 12 June 2005, with events in more than 55 countries. Many events focused on raising awareness of the need to eliminate child labour in small-scale mines and quarries.

Governments, worker and employer representatives, and non-governmental organizations participated in the events, which ranged from dramatic presentations to rallies and discussions. Some press conferences took place at small-scale mining and quarrying sites where children work. Elsewhere, children created paintings, poetry, and music and staged carnivals, festivals, and circuses to draw attention to child labour issues.

Highlights from the field events include a widespread media campaign in Peru to showcase the success of eliminating child labour in the Santa Filomena mines; a human chain of 10,000 people organized throughout Dhaka City by the ILO and partner organizations in Bangladesh; a month-long campaign in India to eliminate child labour in the match and fireworks industry; and artistic performances involving the SCREAM methodology in Italy, Spain, and Jordan, among other countries.

ILO hosts "call to action" event

Tripartite delegations representing workers, employers, and governments of 15 countries marked this year's World Day Against Child Labour by presenting signed accords to the ILO, thereby committing themselves to eliminating child labour in informal small-scale mines and quarries in their countries within five to ten years. The special event was hosted by IPEC at the Palais des Nations in Geneva during the ILO's International Labour Conference.

The event, attended by close to 200 people, featured speeches by representatives of the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM); the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine, and General Workers' Unions (ICEM); the US Bureau of International Labor Affairs; and the Communities and Small-Scale Mining network (CASM). Participating countries included Brazil, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Côte d'Ivoire, Ecuador, Ghana, Mali, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Senegal, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Togo. The event finished with a specially made video on the issue by Brazilian Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil.

Mongolia: Eliminating child labour in gold mines

Of the 100,000 people who work in informal gold mines in Mongolia, between 10 and 15 per cent are children. This is due to rising unemployment levels country-wide and reduced rural income opportunities.

The ILO launched a collaborative project with the Mongolian Employers' Federation (MONEF) and other partners in 2003 to eliminate child labour in gold mines, using an integrated approach to sustainable development. The project is helping the community organize a community-based association to improve working conditions, obtain basic machinery to replace the most dangerous work performed by children, build local programmes to raise community awareness, and support alternative income-generating activities for adults so children don't have to work.

The project has made great strides not only in improving relations between local authorities, informal miners, and formal mining companies and educating local miners on issues of occupational safety and health, but has also enrolled former child miners into non-formal education (NFE) and technical college courses.

In Zamaar Soum, for example, 37 children between six and 15 years of age have begun an interactive, participatory NFE programme that provides a safe and stimulating environment in which to learn. In addition to conventional topics, the NFE programme covers issues like child labour, health and safety at work, personal development and working arrangements.

The 40 adolescents between 16 and 19 years old who worked in the Zamaar Soum mines have been enrolled in the mining technical college in Erdenet with the aim of moving them out of labour-intensive, hazardous work and introducing them to safe and decent employment alternatives. MONEF and its partners are currently investigating other types of skills training for former child miners and are helping to create job placement opportunities once they complete the courses and are entering the labour market.

"We are taking a number of concrete actions, organizing non-formal education classes for young children working at the mining sites and skills training for older children so that they can get safer work in the formal mining companies", said Kuyag Ganbaatar of MONEF.

Nationwide campaign against child labour launched in France

The ILO, in collaboration with the French Government and social partners, has launched a new national information campaign against child labour in France featuring posters in underground railway stations and luminous advertising around Paris and the Ile-de-France region. The French publicity campaign was created to mark the World Day Against Child Labour, inaugurated in 2002 and held each year on 12 June, to raise public awareness about child labour and the commitment of governments and the social partners to eliminate the practice.

The campaign was organized in partnership with several French Government ministries and ILO constituents and was officially launched at the Ministry of Employment by Minister Jean-Louis Borloo. The goal of the campaign was to sensitize the public to the realities, causes, and consequences of child labour and evaluate progress by made by IPEC.

The campaign has received major coverage on radio, television and in the written press, including the media outlets of trade unions and other participants in the campaign. Support was also received from schools, universities, networks of the Ile-de-France region and the Ministry of Education. Posters and TV spots were produced pro bono by a French advertising agency with the support of the Paris city government and transportation system.

For more information see a complete report on the campaign at, under World of Work magazine.