Many mines and oil installations have been modernised and have become safe workplaces, where machines now perform the most hazardous tasks. In many countries, however, mines remain the deadliest type of workplace, where collapses, landslides, drowning, and pulmonary illnesses claim thousands of miners’ lives every year. In many cases, informal/small-scale mines represent the most dangerous form of mining because protection and safety equipment are usually non-existent. Trade unions are seldom represented at small-scale and informal mines. Dialogue with workers associations here is often non-existent, which even further increases the vulnerability of the miners and their lack of influence over their working conditions.
The extractive industries are overwhelmingly male-dominated workplaces. Women who work in mining and extraction can be particularly vulnerable, especially for sexual abuse.
Miners in front of the entrance to a cassiterite mine in Congo Kinshasa. There is a severe risk of collapse at these types of mine, which typically have narrow and deep shafts. Photo: Jeppe Schilder.
Frequent fatalities in the hunt for jade in Myanmar
In the state of Kachin in northern Myanmar, the extraction of jade is being conducted at breakneck speed. In the past two decades, jade mining activities have transformed forests and mountains into enormous craters. Thousands of people have lost their livelihoods and land due to jade mining and hundreds of people die every year in landslides caused by mining activity. Local people are also affected by fighting between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army. Since 2011, more than 100,000 people have been forced to flee due to the conflict. Jade mining, considered to be highly corrupt, is believed to have strong linkages to the conflict with both warring parties receiving funding from it.
Thousands of men and boys search for the gemstone jade by sifting through earth from mines that is dumped by trucks. Many people die in falls, are runover by trucks or die in landslides, particularly during the monsoon period when the ground becomes looser. In 2015, 114 jade hunters died in a landslide at a dumping area.
“Our work’s dangerous. I’ve seen rocks fall on the heads of many miners. Some die, because they pass out when rocks hit them, and then they’re covered in more rocks as people continue to dig around them. There’s often an aggressive atmosphere when everyone scrabbles through fresh piles of slag that are dumped,” a worker tells Aljazeera News.
Read more in Swedwatch’s report: Overlooked and undermined.
Forced labour, also referred to as modern slavery, frequently occurs in regions with limited insight from the outside world. Forced labour includes people who are not free to leave their work without the risk of reprisal; people who have entered into employment under uninformed circumstances, people who automatically are becoming trapped in debt traps or who are not paid a salary as promised. As mines and forests are often isolated from larger communities, the extractive industries account for a considerable proportion of the total 20 to 45 million people that are currently trapped in forced labour.
Forced labour in the Amazon rain forests
Forced labour in illegal logging in the Amazon is widespread. On the Brazilian side of the Amazon, authorities have rescued people who have been forced to work felling trees under slave-like conditions, without pay and entirely without protective equipment. Speaking to Repórter Brasil, one person who was rescued says:
“The foreman says it’s better to pay 3,000 for a “pistolero” (an armed man) than pay 5,000 to an employee. It’s cheaper for the foreman. He points a gun in our faces and threatens us. But reporting this to the police would be suicide for us. There’s too much death in the forest.”
Forced labour is also widespread in the Peruvian Amazon. Estimates put the number of people that are victims of forced labour in illegal logging in Peru at more than 30,000. Trafficking of women and girls for forced labour, primarily for prostitution, in these areas is widespread, and Peru’s government is accused of not taking sufficient steps to combat this. Trafficking and child labour are also widespread in many of the illegal gold mines in the south of the country.
A significant proportion of the 168 million children who, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), work globally, are found in the extractive industries, primarily in informal mines. The use of toxic chemicals such as mercury, (used to separate gold), is common in informal mines. Children are especially vulnerable to such chemicals, which can inhibit their development. Mercury attacks the central nervous system and can cause brain damage and death. Under international principles, work performed by children below 18 years in mines falls into the category of the worst forms of child labour. Child labour in logging is widespread in certain parts of Asia and occurs to a certain extent in oil extraction.
Thousands of children work in Congo Kinshasa’s diamond
According to a report by Swedwatch, thousands of children are likely to be working in small-scale mining of diamonds in Congo Kinshasa. In the diamond-rich region children, mainly boys, frequently start to work in open surface mines from around the age of 10 to pay for schooling and food. At 14 they are given more demanding tasks. The work makes many children too tired for school, and instead they begin to work with diamond extraction full-time from a young age.
“It’s a bad job. It’s very demanding, but I have no choice. I’d rather work as a mechanic or anything else apart from in the mine when I’m older, but to get a job I need to study,” says a 19-year-old small-scale diamond miner who started working in a mine at the age of 14 to Swedwatch.
“If I find a large diamond, I’ll use the money to study in town. Then I’ll have a shot at getting a job. Any job is better than the mine,” says a 17-year-old mine worker.
Girls typically sell food and water and to miners. In mining environments girls are especially exposed to risk, and sexual exploitation of girls is common. Forced marriages from the age of 12 are common for many girls in the diamond region.
Children frequently work in small-scale mining of diamonds in Congo Kinshasa. Photo: Swedwatch
Proportion of children in the most severe forms of child labour, including mining, accounts for almost half of all child labour.
In many developing countries, large-scale mining operations are often linked to a variety of chronic negative health effects for those working in mines and among local populations. Mining tends to involve a variety of chemicals, (such as mercury and arsenic), and large amounts of water, which can affect local populations’ access to clean water. Chemical spills and water shortages caused by mining, and pollution from oil extraction can lead to poorer harvests and reduced fishing opportunities. This, in turn, can result in severe consequences for the local populations’ nutritional intake and livelihoods. Reports from mining regions in Asia, Africa, and South America illustrate how the extractive industries’ emissions of toxic chemicals in watercourses have caused cancer, renal failure, silicosis, skin conditions, birth defects, infertility, and a number of other diseases.
Coal dust from Colombia’s largest coal mine, Cerrejón, affects surrounding communities.
An estimated 1.6 million people in Johannesburg, South Africa, live in an area directly affected by toxic waste heaps, residue from gold mining in the now 600 decommissioned mines. The heaps contain toxic substances, including large amounts of uranium.
The local population breathes in poisonous particles present in the air, and the uranium gets into the groundwater through rainfall. From there, the poisons make their way to plants and animals. One study has put uranium levels in cattle in the affected area at 4,350 times above normal levels. The toxins are believed to cause diseases such as cancer, renal failure, reduced mental ability, and children with extensive birth defects. Doctors report of large numbers of patients with asthma and tuberculosis due to the emissions, and children who are born with severe disabilities are over-represented in the area. The extraction of gold is considered to have turned Johannesburg into one of the world’s most uranium-polluted cities.
“The dust gets into our food. We eat this dust, we drink this dust, that’s why so many people are sick here.” It’s a silent killer,” Tiny Dlamini tells Al Jazeera. Dlamini lives next to a waste heap in Dobonsville township.
Mining operations, regardless of whether they are formal or informal, tend to be male-dominated workplaces. As large numbers of men leave their homes and move to new areas, they impact host communities.
In many places, tensions are created that lead to violence, increased alcoholism, and sexual violence, above all towards women and girls. It is also common for women and girls to fall into in prostitution, and HIV/Aids tends to be over-represented in areas close to mining activity. Security personnel who are employed at mines and oil installations are often responsible for brutal sexual abuse of women and girls. The true number of victims of sexual violence is huge.
Sexual abuse is common at mineral extraction sites in Congo Kinshasa. Photo: Roland Brockman/MISEREOR
Security guards employed at the Porgera gold mine in Papua New Guinea have, for many years, been accused of systematic rape of hundreds of women and girls who live near the mine; gang rape is common. Attacks often follow a similar pattern, where groups of five or more security guards on patrol meet one or more women in the mining area, and subject them to threats and violence, and then rape.
For many years, mining company Barrick Gold has been accused of not doing enough to stop the rapes, and criticised for the amount of compensation the company offered a group of rape victims, (the offer was made after several years’ pressure from human rights activists all over the world). In 2017, Barrick Gold asked an independent consultant to investigate how people affected by abuse and sexual violence can be redressed. The consultant found 940 cases of abuse, in addition to many cases that were not reported. The report contains a plan of action that the mining company should implement for victims and to prevent future human rights abuses.