GENEVA (ILO news) - Workers, employers and governments are to join the International Labour Organization (ILO) in marking the World Day Against Child Labour this year by calling for the elimination of child labour in one of the world's most dangerous sectors - small-scale mining and quarrying - within five to 10 years.
This new initiative will be launched with a "call to action" at a special event during the ILO's International Labour Conference on 10 June. The ILO estimates that at least 1 million children aged five to 17 currently toil in small-scale mines and quarries around the world.
"Children who work in mines and quarries are in such danger - risking their health and safety, and indeed their lives - that action must be taken now", said Juan Somavia, Director-General of the ILO. "One million children are carrying a burden far too heavy for their bodies and responsibilities too heavy for their years. It's up to us, together, to lift this weight from their shoulders, to get them out of the mines and quarries and into school."
The new initiative calls on governments, workers' organizations and employers associated with the mining sector to work together to help remote mining and quarrying enterprises - often small, family-based operations in the informal sector - to become economically and environmentally sustainable without the use of children as workers.
Tripartite delegations from at least 14 countries are expected to present a signed accord to the ILO committing themselves to eliminating child labour in all small-scale mining and quarrying in a "time bound" manner. These countries include: Brazil, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Côte d'Ivoire, Ecuador, Ghana, Mali, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Philippines, Senegal, Tanzania, and Togo.
Typically, these are operations that lack mechanization, tools and safety measures to protect workers, no matter what age. The work exposes both adults and children to the risk of death and injury from tunnel collapses, accidental explosions, rock falls, exposure to toxic substances such as mercury and lead, and chronic health conditions such as silicosis. Dirty and dangerous conditions, combined with heavy loads and long hours of work, contribute to a vicious circle that increases the risks of accidents and disease, and denies children opportunities to develop into healthy adults.
World Day observances are expected to take place in scores of cities around the world on 12 June. The World Day Against Child Labour was established by the ILO in 2002 to raise the visibility of global and local efforts against child labour and highlight the global movement to eliminate the practice, particularly its worst forms.
As outlined in a background paper released by the ILO International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), nearly all children involved in small-scale mining and quarrying are in so-called artisanal work sites. Often located in remote, hard-to-reach areas, the sites are difficult to regulate, thus hindering efforts to assist the children working there. Most often, children enter the mining and quarrying sector because they and their families are poor or due to lack of educational facilities. The areas where the small-scale mines exist offer few options for employment, and children are expected to share the burden of earning income for the family.
"This is an extreme form of hazardous work, and we are convinced that with a concerted effort among our constituents we can relegate child labour in mining and quarrying to the dustbin of history", said Guy Thijs, Director of IPEC. "Virtually all of these one million children are located in poor, remote areas that are beyond the scope of regulation. We know largely where they are located, and we have demonstrated through a number of projects that mining and quarrying communities can end child labour with an integrated rural development approach that improves basic services and market access, strengthens governance and ensures compliance with safety and minimum age regulations, and ensures that there are school and vocational training alternatives for the children."
In some mines, children work as far as 90 metres beneath the ground with only a rope with which to climb in and out, inadequate ventilation and only a flashlight or candle for light. In small-scale mining, child workers dig and haul heavy loads of rock, dive into rivers and flooded tunnels in search of minerals, set explosives for underground blasting and crawl through narrow tunnels only as wide as their bodies. In quarries, children dig sand, rock and dirt; transport it on their heads or backs; and spend hours pounding larger rocks into gravel using adult-sized tools to produce construction materials for roads and buildings.
The health risks range from spinal injuries and deformities from carrying loads that are too heavy to potentially fatal rock falls and chronic diseases. These are compounded by the environmental hazards, such as the soil, water and air that may be contaminated with toxic substances like mercury. Clean drinking water, health services and schools are often unavailable, especially in the more remote areas. Even where schools and clinics are available, work obligations often prevent child labourers from enjoying their benefits. In addition, such work often puts children at risk for involvement in the drug and alcohol trade and in prostitution, which are also considered worst forms of child labour under C. 182.
The ILO has set specific standards concerning mining, most recently through the Safety and Health in Mines Convention, 1995 (No.176), and Recommendation, 1995 (No.183) . In 1999 and 2002, ILO tripartite meetings on mining recommended active measures against child labour in small-scale mining. Since then, the ILO through IPEC has undertaken a number of technical cooperation projects to demonstrate how child labour in mining and quarrying can be stopped.
IPEC's pilot projects in Mongolia, Tanzania, Niger and the Andean countries of South America have shown that the best way to assist children in this sector is to work with the children's own communities, improving the viability, safety and environmental sustainability of the small-scale mining economy, and improving future prospects of the children through accessible, decent schools, training and basic services.
According to the ILO, there are nearly 250 million child labourers worldwide. Approximately one million work in mining and quarrying, considered a worst form of child labour under ILO Convention No. 182. The Convention was adopted in 1999 and addresses "work in hazardous environments, where children are exposed to toxic chemicals, dangerous machinery or extreme heat", among other dangers to child labourers. Convention No. 182, and its predecessor Convention No. 138 on the Minimum Age, adopted in 1973, are among the ILO's most widely ratified conventions.