Migrated Content
We have recently updated the ILO website and are in the process of rebuilding a number of pages. You might encounter layout issues on pages as we work on them. Thank you for your understanding while we improve your experience.

Small-scale mining on the increase in developing countries

GENEVA (ILO News) - Small-scale mining is expanding rapidly and often uncontrollably in many developing countries, employing large numbers of women and children in dangerous conditions and generating a workplace fatality rate up to 90 times higher than mines in industrialized countries, says a new report * by the International Labour Office (ILO).

17 May 1999

GENEVA (ILO News) - Small-scale mining is expanding rapidly and often uncontrollably in many developing countries, employing large numbers of women and children in dangerous conditions and generating a workplace fatality rate up to 90 times higher than mines in industrialized countries, says a new report * by the International Labour Office (ILO).

The report, Social and labour issues in small-scale mines , was prepared for a sectoral meeting on small-scale mining which gets underway at the ILO in Geneva on Monday, May 17; it finds that small-scale mining activity in 35 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America grew by an average of 20 per cent in the last five years, and that authorities in most of the countries surveyed expected these levels of growth to continue.

"One reason why such employment is so dangerous is that as much as 80 per cent of small-scale mining falls outside any legal or regulatory framework," says Norman Jennings, the ILO industrial specialist who prepared the report.

The report notes that while many countries seek to discourage or suppress small-scale mining as dirty, dangerous and damaging, these efforts risk foundering on the hard bedrock of economic necessity. For impoverished communities, "mining holds out a promise of cash earnings, with the additional prospect that - a bit like holding a lottery ticket - there could be a large windfall sometime in the future as long as one remains in the game." This reinforces the vicious circle of appalling working conditions, significant environmental damage and poverty in communities whose survival depends upon small-scale mining.

Jennings said that policies are needed to put small-scale mining on a stable footing so that it can provide decent work for the millions of workers and entrepreneurs involved, adding that there are many safe, productive and successful small-scale mines in operation.

Work in small-scale mines tends to be low-paid, seasonal and highly precarious, but provides direct employment, though often at a subsistence level, for up to 13 million workers whose labour generates an estimated 15-20 per cent of world production of precious metals, gems, building materials and (mostly) non-fuel minerals, according to the ILO survey.

As many as 80-100 million people worldwide depend for their livelihoods on the often scant proceeds of small-scale mining, roughly the same amount as for the more visible, large-scale mining sector, but most small-scale miners gain a very meagre living, some selling as little as US$1 worth of gold at a time. Less than 10 per cent of the workforce in small-scale mines are likely to have any formal training skills.

In spite of the difficulties, the economic and social impact of small-scale mining is far from small, particularly in high-value product areas such as gold, silver, diamonds or gemstones. The report notes that small-scale mines account for as much as 80 to 100 per cent of gold, diamond or gemstone production in Burkina Faso, Cuba, Guyana, Mozambique, Myanmar and Niger and more than 50 per cent in Bolivia, Mexico, the Philippines and Tanzania. Depending on the size of deposits, the economic significance of small-scale mining can be considerable, particularly for communities lacking any alternative sources of employment or income:

"At a national level, the export of high-value metals and minerals from small-scale mines can make a major contribution to foreign exchange earnings. Gold and gemstones worth US$1 billion a year are estimated to be produced in sub-Saharan Africa. In China, gold production from small-scale mining is currently worth about US$200 million a year; in Bolivia and Brazil about US$180 million (much less than in the heydays of the garimpeiros (gold prospectors) in the late 1980s); US$140 million in Indonesia and about US$250 million in Peru.

While economies of scale usually limit the production of industrial minerals (such as copper, iron ore, manganese, lead and coal) to highly mechanized, large-scale mines, the report notes that in countries where local and domestic demand exists, these products are often mined on a small-scale.

Health and Safety Risks

While it is impossible to say how many deaths and accidents occur in small-scale mines, due to under-reporting and the clandestine nature of much of the work, the risks of fatal and disabling accidents are high, particularly in underground coal mines.

"The three countries with the highest number of small-scale underground coal mines ( China, India and Pakistan) have significantly higher numbers of fatal accidents, even when the size of the workforce is taken into account, than is the case in other sorts of mines," the report says.

"In China more than 6,000 fatalities are estimated to occur in small-scale mines each year. In Hunan Province, where 25 million tons of coal a year are produced in 5,220 small-scale mines employing 200,000 workers, there were 232 deaths in 1997; 70 per cent of these deaths were due to gas or coal dust explosions." The fatality rate of 9.1 death per million tons of coal is 90 times higher than the industrial country average of 0.1. In some regions, the death toll is even higher, as, for example, in Balochistan, a province in Pakistan where, in 1998, 64 miners lost their lives in mines producing 1.6 million tons of coal, a fatality rate of 40 workers per million tons.

In these and many other countries, disasters exact a high toll in miners' lives. In 1998 a mudslide in Colombia killed 100 gemstone miners; flooding in Tanzania killed more than 100 miners in 1997 and about 70 in 1998. In China in 1996, more than 400 coal miners died in three separate gas explosions; in 1997, 86 died in one explosion, and in 1998, more than 30 died in explosions.

In Bolivia, where cooperatives of 4,000 small-scale miners exploit a closed tin mine, as many as 3 fatalities and 15 serious injuries occur each month, equivalent to almost 1 per cent of the workforce being killed each year. A similar situation prevails in Zimbabwe, which has a reputation for a disproportionately high number of fatalities, "mainly caused by miners re-entering closed mines to illegally win gold from pillars and from alluvial miners burrowing into uncompacted river banks."

In all too many cases, human and financial factors contribute to deaths and injuries: "Inadequate, inappropriate or unsafe equipment are real problems in many small-scale mines." Cave-ins from unsupported tunnels, rock falls, perpetual dampness, inadequate ventilation, faulty equipment, exhaustion and constant exposure to heat, noise and dust also take a toll on miners health and safety. The frequent anarchy prevailing in the often gold rush conditions of many small-scale mines sites means that health and safety considerations are often ignored.

The dangers of mining accidents, however real, are not nearly so acute as the health hazards and sickness found in mining communities, which are commonly overcrowded, consisting often of makeshift huts with inadequate facilities for sanitation and water. Processing of raw minerals is often done in the home and water sources that might be used to treat minerals may also serve as the domestic water supply. Silicosis from exposure to dust and mercury poisoning are occupational hazards of miners, which extend to the entire community, including the wives and children of miners. In Ghana, women and children as young as 14 have been diagnosed with advanced stages of silicosis from grinding gold-bearing ore at home. But the almost total lack of access to health care makes it impossible to gauge the extent of occupational diseases, especially silicosis and mercury poisoning.

Women and child miners

The ILO report estimates that as many as 4 million of the world's 13 million small-scale miners are female, though many work part-time. In Asia the proportion of women workers is less than 10 per cent with most of their activities limited to sorting, packaging and preparation of materials for shipping.

In Latin America the proportion is somewhat higher, with women accounting for anywhere from 10-20 per cent of the workforce. In Africa the participation of women is even higher, reaching 60 per cent in some mining areas.

Women in Africa are actively involved in processing of raw materials, including crushing, grinding, sieving, washing and transporting of minerals. In some mining centres, these activities are even dominated by women who undertake these activities in the home, exposing entire families to high risks from silicosis and mercury poisoning. Although women rarely work underground, they can be found panning for gold or raking the surface of deposits in search of small amounts of raw material.

In Latin America women undertake similar activities and women and children can often be found scavenging for ore and gemstones. As many as 8,000 women work in the gold mining areas north of La Paz, Bolivia in particularly harsh conditions. These women, called palliris, collect and sort mine waste from processing plants, which they sell to intermediaries, take to processing plants or wash themselves to extract small amounts of metal. Some women work in alluvial pits up to 20 metres deep extracting metal-bearing sand with picks and shovels. Their wages are low and often their work is unpaid, done simply to enhance the earning capacity of their husbands.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of children work in small-scale mines, often in intolerable conditions. The hazards they face - from inundation, cave-ins, tuberculosis, dust, mercury and other chemicals - are the same as those faced by adults, but the risks to immature bodies are much more severe.

In mines and quarries around the world, small children can be seen scavenging for materials, breaking rocks with hammers, washing ore, sieving it or transporting it. Children as young as 9 are used to set explosives, fill sacks with ore, transport them on their backs and load them into carts. At or around the age of 12, the presence of children in underground mines tends to increase and many begin to do the same work as adults. Most often, children's work in mining is undertaken simply to enhance family earnings or to earn just enough food to live.

In some cases their small size increases risk, for example, in a gold rush, where competition to find a vein of ore is frantic, children need smaller tunnels than adults. But the risks in such conditions are extremely high due to the haphazard nature of the workings and the lack of regard for basic safety precautions.

Examples of child labour in small-scale mining are abundant. In Guinea, boys of 14 to 16 years of age work in diamond mines, usually at very low pay, digging gravel in trenches, removing water with buckets and diverting streams and rivers using sandbags. Surveys undertaken by the ILO in Madagascar and Burkina Faso found hundreds of child labourers in small-scale mines and quarries, many working as much as 10 hours per day alongside their impoverished family members.

In Niger, it is estimated that as many as 250,000 children work full-time or part-time in small-scale mining that is carried out at a subsistence level. Many of the children are descendants of slaves who work in trona production (a product used in cattle feed) under conditions of dire poverty. Other mined products include salt, gypsum, gold and construction materials.

In the Mollehuaca region of Peru, children working underground are exposed to very harsh conditions, doing much the same work as adults in 12-hour shifts. Many children work in stone mills. Levels of mercury contamination are high and adults and children alike suffer from respiratory and other mine-related illnesses.

In the Philippines, children in the Sibutad region work carrying ore in 28 kg sacks (62 lbs.) from gold mines to processing centres; others are involved in ore processing, exposing them to mercury contamination; some work underground carrying food or water to the miners.

At the Mererani mining sight in Tanzania, agile youngsters aged 12-15 work as so-called "snake boys" fetching and carrying materials in and out of underground mines, scavenging for small gemstones, placing explosives in confined places and running errands for adult miners. Their small size allows them to reach places inaccessible adults and to operate at higher speed, but the heavy loads, cramped conditions and unhealthy, to awkward working conditions take a heavy toll on the development of snake boys.

A sector in need of support

The report says, that like most economic activities, "small-scale mining has positive and negative aspects. It is closely linked to economic development, particularly in the rural sector in many developing countries; it helps to stem rural-urban migration, maintaining the link between people and the land; it makes a major contribution to foreign exchange earnings; it enables the exploitation of what otherwise might be uneconomic resources; and it has been a precursor to large-scale mining."

The report maintains that "small-scale mining can and should be encouraged by creating the operating environment that encourages the use of best practices for mining and occupational health and safety and environmental protection."

The report urges consideration of the following steps: "Ensuring that title and property rights over minerals are straightforward to acquire and transfer; that access to finance for small-scale mining is on equal terms with other sectors; that labour and social issues are addressed and the working and living conditions of small-scale miners and their communities are improved; that the environmental impact of small-scale mining is minimized; and that small-scale miners have the necessary technical and business skills to ensure the safe and efficient operation of their mines."

It says that "success on these fronts could assure the existence of small-scale mining as a socially and economically beneficial activity that enriches the entrepreneurs and workers involved, together with the regions in which it takes place."

* Social and labour issues in small-scale mines. Report for discussion at the Tripartite Meeting on Social and Labour Issues in Small-scale Mines. International Labour Office, Geneva, 1999. ISBN 92-2-111480-5. Price: 17.50 Swiss francs.