Yaneth Martinez Pobea

Miner and leader against child labour

“I have seen children with mercury in their hands. They should stay away from it. There are many other, healthier activities and spaces for them.”

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Most small gold mines in Colombia lack land titles and fail to comply with labour and mining regulations, including prohibitions on the use of child labour

Colombia reports 5,000 cases of children working in or near mines and quarries, but there is no truly accurate data due to the informality of the sector

Children who do work in these mines often get injured from breaking rocks and get sick from exposure to mercury

mining, pueblito, women, rural, formalization, awareness, community, belong, respect, possibilities

Yaneth was shocked when she learned that mining is considered one of the worst forms of child labour by the ILO. She was sitting in a small classroom in Buena Seña, the mining village where she lives, listening to a presentation on the topic. She was born into mining. It was not so much an economic activity as a culture - her culture.

But things had changed. She was older now, a mother with children of her own. She dreamed of sending them to school, where they could study and build a better future.

“A child in mining is a terrible thing,” she realized. “It shouldn’t be like that.”

Yaneth grew up in Buena Seña, an informal gold mining village in Bolívar, Colombia.

As a child, she looked up to her father, a miner and a social leader. (People in Colombia use the term “social leader” to describe a range of activists, including human rights defenders.) Her father opposed the presence of armed groups, which made him a target. He was murdered, leaving his family reeling.

At the time, young Yaneth could not understand why her father had been killed. All she knew was that she had to give up her studies and go to work. She began working from 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. in Baranquilla to support her pregnant sister and grieving mother.

“After working and working, I got tired and needed a holiday,” she said. “My brothers told me: ’Come. We are doing well in the mine. Stay for a month.’ The month turned into 12 years.”

Soon, Yaneth was in charge of the grinding process, marketing, and general supervision of the mining activities. No other woman has worked at the mine as long as she has.

“At first, they didn’t accept my leadership because it was a ’man’s job” she said. But things have started to change. They rely on me a lot.”

Yaneth’s and her coworkers’ goal is to formalize their activities and export their gold abroad. However, local conflicts in Colombia have prevented their efforts so far. In addition, she pointed to the “macho” mentality of miners as one of the reasons the sector has resisted formalization and accepted child labour. Still, she is working toward her goal of formalizing these jobs.

“Men see a child and say: ’Let them learn the work!’” she pointed out. “But that’s not right.”

Being one of the only women in the mine, as well as a mother, Yaneth has a unique perspective on the problem of child labour in mining. In fact, she believes that it’s made her more aware of the issue.

A mother with a mission

Today, Yaneth’s interests coalesce around formalization. In addition to her work in the mine, she is a member of a victims’ committee, in memory of her father, and a women’s rights group. She was also a participant in the Pilares project (implemented by PACT and funded by the US Department of Labor), which aimed to combat child labour and improve working conditions in Colombia.

“We learned a lot from the project,” she said. “We honestly didn’t know much about the laws. Now, we know more about the issue and we have made progress, but it’s a road that we need to travel little by little.”

Yaneth believes that if the sector is formalized, then parents will enjoy better jobs with decent working conditions, increased salaries, and equality. As such, they will more willingly and able send their children to school.

“Where do you see child labour? In informal mining,” she noted. “That’s when the mine owners relax and children are allowed to go to the mine.”

For now, she is focused on raising awareness about the issue. Since she herself didn’t even know that child labour was a problem, she is dedicated to informing her fellow miners and the wider community, including parents, family members, and children themselves.

“When a child is aware, possibilities open up,” she noted. “They can say: ’Dad, I don’t want to go to work with you. I want to study.’”

She uses her own experience to speak out about the issue. For example, she tells children that mining is dangerous work. She tells parents that this work is going to affect their health, and they should protect their children.

“My message to children is: If I had studied and got a degree, I would be in a different place, or doing the same thing I do now, but with more impact,” she said.

How can I help?

Here are Yaneth’s top tips for budding activists: