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The Brutal Life of a Child Miner

05/22/2013 12:15 EDT | Updated 07/22/2013 05:12 EDT
Getty Images
TO GO WITH: India-mining-children-labour,FEATURE; by Ammu Kannampilly In this photograph taken on January 29, 2013, young Indian coal miners get their pick axes ready for work in front of the hut they call home near where they dig for coal from narrow holes inside deep mine shafts in Rymbai village in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. Child labour is officially illegal in India, with several state laws making the employment of anyone under 18 in a hazardous industry a non-bailable offence. Meghalaya, however, has traditionally been exempt due to its special status as a northeastern state with a significant tribal population. According to the Shillong-based non-profit, Impulse NGO Network, some 70,000 children are currently employed in Meghalaya's mines, with several thousand more working at coal depots. AFP PHOTO/ Roberto Schmidt (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

My dad loves to chill his grandkids with stories of his summer working in an African gold mine. He had grown up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and was helping pay for his upcoming university education.

My boys love hearing how he was lowered down narrow shafts in cage elevators hung from a cable. The heat was so oppressive that his clothes were immediately soaked with sweat. At the bottom, my dad sometimes had to traverse tunnels flooded with water up to his neck.

But nothing stuns the kids more than Grandad's near-drop off a huge subterranean cliff. Shining his flashlight on the floor of the tunnel, there was suddenly nothing but black. Had Dad fallen, the team would have come to find him. But he would almost certainly have died. Life with useless arms or legs would have been the best-case scenario.

These stories are strangely exciting when told over hot chocolate at a kitchen table in Canada, to two children who will likely never face such dangers. My boys can shudder to think about life in a mine, without having to work in a mine themselves.

"I would hate any of my kids or grandkids to work in a place like that," says my dad. "The danger was immense -- and very, very real."

Immense and real danger

But far too many children do work in mines in developing countries around the world. I'm not talking about adult children, as my dad was, but boys and girls as young as six.

In a report released today, World Vision explores the harsh reality of children mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Child Miners Speak takes readers to a place in which adults like my dad would shudder to think of their own loved ones working.

Here are six things you need to know about children and mining:

1) Children are miners, too. An estimated one million are working in mines worldwide. Most of the time they work as "artisanal miners," meaning there are no powerful machines to help them along. They use sharp tools and even their bare hands to chip away at the rough ore.

2) It's dirty. This kind of mining can endanger a child's health. In World Vision's study, 67 per cent of the children experienced frequent or persistent coughing. Girls who were working waist-deep in acidic water reported experiencing genital infections. Cobalt, mined in the DRC, can damage a child's heart, thyroid and lungs.

3) It's dangerous. Mine sites often have deep holes into which children can fall. Because children are small, they are often chosen to dig in tight tunnels and underground areas where cave-ins can happen. Children can slip down steep slopes at mine sites while carrying heavy loads. They can even drown in bodies of water around the mine sites.

4) It's degrading. Children as young as six years old are forced to work in mines. Their families' survival often depends on it. They are usually paid less than adult workers. Since most artisanal mining is illegal, most have no rights. They work long hours, with few breaks or time to rest and play.

5) It hurts. In addition to the back-breaking work, 19 per cent of the children in our study said they had seen another child die on an artisanal mining site.

6) It's wrong. Poverty, not parents, is forcing children to work in mines. Children should be playing, learning to read and write, and experiencing happy, healthy childhoods. But when there's not enough money to put a meal on the table, children have no choice but to earn their keep. It's a growing problem, particularly in countries like the DRC that don't have strong governments, laws and regulations to make sure children are going to school, not down mine shafts.

You can do something. Visit endchildslavery.ca and sign World Vision's online petition to help eliminate the worst forms of child labour around the globe.

Child Sized: The Rat-Hole Coal Mines Of Meghalaya