Breaking the cycle of intergenerational child labour in the Philippines
How Eron escaped the gold mine
Mining in Malaya
Malaya was not a glamorous place to live. But it glittered with gold.
Eron and his family grew up in Malaya, back when it was known for being a hotbed for illegal and artisanal small-scale gold mining. And Malaya, which means “being free” in Filipino, was not a place where children were free to run, laugh, and play. Instead, many children were forced to work in gold mines, which is one of the most dangerous forms of child labour.
Eron was one of those children.
Daily life in Malaya was not easy. It is a barangay, or village, located in a rural, landlocked area in the province of Camarines Norte. Rugged, rolling hills hide vast deposits of gold ore. There are few livelihood options, and commercial agriculture and mining are the most popular industries for work.
Eron’s mother, Ate, had been married once before she met Eron’s father. She was only 15 years old when she moved in with her first partner, and together they had four children. After enduring years of verbal abuse and infidelity, however, Ate decided to separate from him.
Ate had another four children with Eron’s father, but their relationship did not last, either. When his parents separated, Eron dropped out of elementary school at the age of 8, skipping Grades 3 and 4, because his mother could not afford the school fees by herself.
Eron Flores visits the river where artisanal and small-scale miners pan for gold.
Ate worked in the local gold mine to put food on the table for her eight children. Sometimes, she would bring Eron with her to work because she had no other childcare options. Eron was not working then, but he watched and learned how the mine operated.
When Eron finally went back to school, enrolling in Grade 5, he was 13 years old. At the same time, he also started going to the mine regularly with his mother and new stepfather. He went every Saturday and Sunday, and any day off from school, to earn extra money for his family.
Eron talks to a miner in the river where he himself used to operate.
At first, he just brought food for his parents. But, within a year, he had learned enough to start working on his own.
That’s how Eron became a child labourer at the age of 14, just like his stepfather
Filipino families caught in the cycle
An estimated 2.1 million children work in child labour in the Philippines – including in gold mining. The country is considered one of the most highly mineralized countries in the world, and its vast reserves of gold promise wages that are too good to pass up for many workers.
In a 2012 report , the US Department of State estimated the Philippines’ untapped mineral wealth at US$840 billion.
The mining sector is highly informal and working conditions are not up to international standards. Out of tens of thousands of small-scale gold mining sites, only 12 are recognized as legal. When a mine is not registered, it means workers are not protected by labour regulations and safety and health requirements.
Eron is accompanied by his older sister Rachele Almoguera in his visit to the river where he used to mine.
Extreme danger awaits any worker brave enough to take on this job. Unique to the Philippines is a method known as “compressor mining” – young men and children descend unstable, 10-meter-deep pits, breathing through a tube connected to an air compressor above ground, and mine gold underwater for hours. Drownings, accidents and carbon monoxide poisoning from faulty compressors are frequent.
Another, more common danger is the mercury that is used to process the gold, which is one of the most toxic substances on earth. Workers, including children, inadvertently inhale mercury vapors and touch it with their bare hands.
Surface miners usually bring their own mercury to work. They store it in small, empty bottles of perfume and keep it at home – usually in the fridge, where it won’t evaporate.
Eron shovels ore from the riverbed into the gold pan.
Panning for gold is generational in certain parts of the country.
Artisanal small-scale gold mining in the Philippines can be divided into two categories: traditional gold mining and gold rush mining.
Traditional gold mining is done through indigenous methods and carried out by communities or tribes for collective benefit. It is self-regulated according to social norms and rituals.
Gold rush mining is undertaken mostly by poor migrants, who work until the site is depleted. Then, they move on to the next area.
Of the estimated 500,000 artisanal small-scale gold miners nationwide, about 18,000 of them are women and children. Traditionally, the work runs in the family and each person has their own role.
For example, women and children are usually involved in surface mining, also known as panning, as well as other simple processes that require the use of mercury.
Poverty is the main reason children start mining at a young age. In some cases, a child will drop out of school because they need to earn money for their family. Other times, a child will drop out without their parents’ consent. The lucky few who stay in school often work on the weekends.
“I started working at the age of 14 because my stepfather was working in the mines,” Eron recalled. “I was the one who brought his food every day.”
Eron watched his stepfather work and eventually learned how to pan. He would go to the local river early in the morning, bracing himself to enter the cold water with his sluice box. Sluices are long, narrow structures that are used to separate gold from gravel using running water.
If he was lucky, a few hours in the river would be enough to buy food for the day.
Most often, he used mercury to extract the gold. It is considered the fastest and most efficient way to obtain gold, even though the process is very dangerous and may lead to significant health risks.
The river water itself was contaminated by mercury. Eron remembers that his skin was constantly itchy and irritated all over.
Eron used to work as a miner from 7 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. Back then they use mercury to retrieve the gold, unaware of its hazardous and toxic nature.
“I tried mining with the desire to help our family,” Eron reasoned. “I chose to work because of our meager family income. I thought it would help to improve our life.”
Even though he only worked on the weekends, Eron became a part of a larger story: an intergenerational cycle of child labour in the gold mining sector in the Philippines.
“Malaya became known as a place filled with gold,” said Fredelito Belleza, the Malaya village leader. “Young people were enticed to work instead of study because they knew they could easily earn money from mining.”
Poverty, long distances to the nearest schools, and a lack of knowledge around labour laws are some of the main obstacles to ending the cycle of child labour.
But some people and projects are trying.
Change for children with Caring Gold
While the long term goal is to eradicate child labour, in the short term, local and global collaboration are making a difference for children like Eron.
Eron was pulled out of child labour thanks in part to the Caring Gold project, breaking a cycle of child labour in his family.
Implemented by the ILO with the support of the US Department of Labor, the Caring Gold project aimed to convene and coordinate a wide array of stakeholders. Hence its official name: Convening Actors to Reduce Child Labour and Improve Working Conditions. It also promoted decent work by facilitating collaboration and partnerships, which led to improved legislation and policies, access to social services, and more. It used a community-based approach to effect change.
Eron poses with his family in this picture taken in his grandmother’s house. He is surrounded by his 70-year grandma, Euphemia Castro, older brother Ranel Almoguera, his sister, Rachele Almoguera, and 11-year old sibling, John Loyd Flores.
The Caring Gold project also helped the Government of the Philippines to develop and roll out the >SHIELD programme, a government-run effort that aims to withdraw children from the worst forms of child labour through holistic and immediate interventions at the community level.
When Eron’s family became a beneficiary of the SHIELD programme, they started receiving 500 pesos per month in financial assistance from the Department of Social Welfare and Development. This will last until Eron turns 18, as long as he does not return to mining and continues to attend school. The money is intended for school supplies, food, and transportation.
Barangay Councilor Joel Madlangbayan exhibits a copy of the child labor ordinance he authored. The local legislation entitled “Ordinance No. 50 Series 2020” seeks to prohibit youth aged 17 years old and below from engaging in work in extremely dangerous jobs including mining.
“Based on our interviews with children, the main reason for child labour in our barangay is the lack of accessible schooling options,” said Joel Madlangbayan, a local council member and the village focal point for SHIELD.
Big changes have taken place in the Malaya community, with a focus on the welfare and safety of the youngest citizens. The local government has approved an ordinance strictly prohibiting children under the age of 18 from working or even loitering around the mining sites, with punishments for parents who allow their children to do so.
“I still see the need to focus on our children, to ensure that we put an end to child labour,” noted Joel.
“One of the remarkable outcomes of this project is the setting up of the Malaya Integrated School through the united effort of the community, our partners, and the miners themselves,” said Lovely Garcia, a licensed social worker and municipal focal point for SHIELD.
Again, this was a multistakeholder initiative, spearheaded by Caring Gold. The Department of Education provided the teachers and their training, the village government donated the land, the local government constructed the school building, and the miners’ association constructed a temporary building while waiting for the work to start.
It was the convening power of the Caring Gold project that brought all of this together.
Currently, the local government is working on constructing more schools in the area, so that families are more willing to send their children to school instead of taking them to the mine. Before the project, children had to travel 17 kilometers to the nearest middle and high schools.
Eron’s teacher hands him his module. Eron goes to school only once a week as most schools in the Philippines remain closed from face-to-face classes due to the pandemic.
“We are very grateful that Malaya now has a school for Grades 7 and 8,” Ate said. “We are hoping the high school is built soon so Eron can continue his education and stay with us.”
In addition, Ate was able to attend training courses to learn more about the laws and regulations against child labour in the Philippines, as well as to learn about alternative livelihood options.
These training courses and community-wide interventions, designed to raise awareness and change behavior, were implemented primarily by Caring Gold. However, thethe capacity building power of the miners’ association, as well as SHIELD interventions, also played a part.
“Parents have been fully informed that young people should not be working in dangerous environments,” said Fredelito Belleza, the Malaya village leader. “They are also now aware of the difference between child labour and child work.”
A day in the life of a municipal social worker. On a daily basis, Lovely Galicia performs several tasks relating to counseling, interviewing clients, and other administrative duties. She is one of the three licensed social workers in Labo, Camarines Sur.
Caring Gold provided community-wide interventions for parents, members of miners’ organizations, and others with the goal of changing their thoughts and behaviors around child labour. These interventions raised awareness about laws against child labour, children’s rights, and how parents can better support their children. By helping children and their parents, the project aimed to help kids like Eron and their families escape generational child labour and end the practice for good.
These interventions raised awareness about laws against child labour, children’s rights, and how parents can better support their children.
By helping children and their parents, the project aimed to help kids like Eron and their families escape generational child labour and end the practice for good.
As the SHIELD focal person in the barangay, Joel Madlangbayan attends to the concerns of the program’s beneficiaries including obtaining their profiles and recording them into the database.
In addition to supporting an expansion of social services, supporting school construction and raising awareness about the ill effects of child labour, the project:
Organized a community of miners so they were better able to address issues by making claims with the government
Supported the community and the miners’ transition to formality through legalization, registration, and capacity building to ensure compliance with standards
Helped the miners’ organization diversify their economic activities through farming and ensured that they received government support
“As a mother myself, I feel that my clients’ struggles shouldn’t be experienced by other children,” said Lovely Garcia, the municipal focal point for SHIELD. “We should give every child a chance.”
In Eron's words
I am Eron C. Flores, 17 years old.
I woke up this morning at 7 o’clock. I always end up sleeping late because I stay up late to finish my schoolwork. My favorite subject is math.
Since joining the Caring Gold mining project launched by the ILO, my life, as well as my family’s, has become better. I have become even more motivated to help my family by studying hard so I can graduate one day. I have realized that it is better for me to focus on what I can do for myself and my family right now.
I am going to finish Grade 10 in Malaya Integrated School. After that, I will see if Grade 11 and 12 is available. If not, I will go and live with my stepfather’s brother in another village so I can continue studying. Otherwise, I will enroll in an Alternative Learning System or Technical Education System offered by the government, so I am not separated from my mother and my siblings.
My dream is to finish school and find a job that suits my knowledge and skills. I have no intention to go back to the mines. It’s very difficult and dangerous, especially for a child.
All I want to say to the world is that I am so blessed. Before going to bed, I never forget to say a little prayer for the guidance I have received.