Child slaves in Filipino gold mines, "a cultural problem to be solved"
Manila (AsiaNews) – Father Sebastiano D'Ambra, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in Zamboanga, spoke to AsiaNews about a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), centred on the thousands of children exploited in Filipino gold mines in inhuman conditions and exposed to mercury poisoning.
Poverty "leads to these things. Unfortunately, children as well as women are exploited in various kinds of employment. But the problem is not limited to poverty; it is also a cultural fact. The notion that children must attend school until a certain age has not yet sunk in.
Although Filipino labour laws prohibit anyone under 18 from engaging in hazardous work including mining, children as young as nine are lowered underground for several hours to dig, sometimes but not always with oxygen tanks. Many suffocate to death.
In addition, the mercury used to separate the gold from other materials can lead to disabilities and permanent brain damage if used continuously.
Child labourers are also paid a pittance, compared to a product that is currently worth US$ 1,127 an ounce.
The Philippines is the 20th largest gold producer in the world and about 300,000 people are employed in the sector. They include 18,000 underage workers, according to data from the International Labour Organisation.
Fr Edu Gariguez, executive secretary of Caritas Philippines, said that the HRW report, albeit not a new issue in the Philippines, only confirms the exploitation that mining causes. “It belies the claim that mining brings development. On the contrary, mining oppresses the poor, he explained.
In fact, "The government barely monitors child labor in mining and does not penalize employers or withdraw children from these dangerous work environments,” said the HRW in its reports.
According to a study by the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER), which is funded by the European Union, there are two child labourers for every ten families in the mining regions.
Child exploitation is widespread in the Philippines, and is not limited to the mining sector. What is more, "It is hard to admit that the families themselves are not always agains the exploitation of their children," Fr D'Ambra explained. “Extreme poverty pushes them to expose children to human trafficking, online prostitution and cheap labour."
According to the missionary, the government is not completely powerless with regards to the problem.
"It certainly does not have the means to eradicate the problem,” he said, because “The population is growing at a pace that the authorities are unable to cope with. There are so many young people. Nevertheless, some initiatives have been undertaken. For example, the government is paying some 6 million poor families to encourage them to send their daughters to school. If they do not send their children to school, they do not get aid. But that is not enough."