Investigations spanning from the beginning of the year have surfaced a unique gold mining practice in the Philippines. However, the nature of the dangerous work has raised concerns over the lack of labor regulations and the safety of the workers, especially since children are involved.
The people of the coastal province of Camarines Norte, about 200 miles southeast of Manila, are practicing an underwater mining technique called “compressor mining.” It involves teams of miners who dig holes in shallow bay water to dig and sift for deposits of gold trapped in ore. One team member is the digger and spends two to three hours at a time below the surface of the murky water, handing buckets of mud up to another team member.
The buckets are then passed back to the final members who mix in mercury so that the gold will bind to it. Once they’ve maximized the gold-to-mercury ratio in the mixture, they squeeze it out so that it solidifies into an amalgam lump. The final step is to take a blowtorch to the lump so that the mercury evaporates, leaving gold to be collected.
The technique is called compressor mining because the worker under water breathes through a tube connected to a makeshift compressor. The compressor is often fashioned out of an empty beer keg and connected to a diesel motor that pumps air through the tube.
From start to finish, the technique poses a number of severe health and safety risks. The holes dug by the miners are unstable and any wrong move could cause a collapse, trapping the worker. Spending long hours in the water exposes entire teams to bacteria and parasites as well. There is also the issue of toxins entering the lungs regularly through breathing tubes and mercury fumes poisoning those extracting gold.
In interviews with the laborers, Richard Paddock of the Center for Investigative Reporting states that those he talked to were completely unaware of toxic exposure, and many were reluctant to believe him.
There are at least a few thousand people involved in the operation, and many of the teams are comprised of families with children as young as 5 years old. Since underwater miners make more money, 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls are attracted to the position in hopes of raising money to safeguard their future and their family’s future.
According to Thomson Reuters, in 2012, the Philippines was the 18th largest supplier of gold in the world. Yet, like in many developing nations, the retrieval of gold from deposits is dangerous work and workers have very little choice when they need to provide for themselves and their families. Even still, these Filipino gold miners only make $5 average per day, up to $20 on a good day, and sometimes go home with nothing.
There’s no way to track the supply of gold coming out of the Camarines Norte area; once it enters the world gold supply, it is impossible to trace.
— Edward Heinrich
Sources: PRI, PBS, Pulitzer Center
Photo: Pulitzer Center