Miners & Minors


Minors as Miners

Archival photo of a group of boys standing closely together, wearing layered ragged clothing and caps, their faces and clothes covered in dust and soot
Breaker boys often worked 14-16 hours per day in the coal mines. Photo by Lewis W. Hine taken in Pittston, Pennsylvania (1911)
Courtesy of The History Place

Gems from India, diamonds from Sierra Leone and silver from Bolivia are all produced from the sweat of poverty-stricken children who are often the main breadwinners for their families.

In 2006, the attempted rescue of 13 miners inside the International Coal Group's Sago Mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia played out live on American television, reminding the world just how dangerous the day-to-day job of mining can be. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics has determined that the mining industry ranks #2 on its list of most dangerous professions; Forbes magazine, in its own study on dangerous jobs, estimates that mining accounts for 28.3 fatalities per 100,000 workers.

In many parts of the world, this work is still being done by children.

While much public attention in the United States has been focused on child labor as it relates to consumer goods such as clothing, sneakers and inexpensive electronics, few Americans have made the connection between the precious metals in their jewelry and flatware and the backbreaking work of children in the mines of the developing world. Gems from India, diamonds from Sierra Leone and silver from Bolivia are all produced from the sweat of poverty-stricken children who are often the main breadwinners for their families.

Reforms in the U.S.

American children accounted for much of the mine labor force in the 19th and early 20th centuries, despite the attempts of groups like the National Child Labor Committee, which was founded in 1904 in response to the then-common practice of children toiling in rural mines and urban sweatshops. At the time, boys as young as eight were put to work in the nation’s many coal mines under conditions not dissimilar to those in THE DEVIL’S MINER. Laws were passed piecemeal in individual states until the 1920s—and largely ignored or circumvented by various means—when Congress attempted an outright ban on child labor via an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitutional amendment failed, and it wasn’t until 1938 and the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act that most egregious forms of child labor in America were formally outlawed as part of a sweeping labor bill that also established such things as the minimum wage and overtime pay.

A young miner, perhaps seven years old, stands at the entrance of a mine, he wears a too large helmet and a serious expression on his face

One out of every six children involved in mining has suffered some sort of professional injury.

Child Labor

While there are still sporadic abuses in the United States, child labor is still a fact of life in many countries, particularly in Central and South America, Africa and Asia. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), more than 200 million children under the age of 14 are workers, mostly in the Third World. While mining accounts for only a fraction of that number—sweatshops, agriculture, manufacturing jobs and domestic work predominate—in many countries, where there are mines, there are children working in them. Journalist Barbara J. Fraser counts 50,000 children working in the mines of the Peruvian Highlands, where Cerro Rico is located; the ILO puts the number of child miners in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador at 260,000.

And the job is indeed a very dangerous one. Studies show that one out of every six children—boys and girls—involved in mining has suffered some sort of professional injury, according to statistics cited by John J. Tierney, Jr., faculty chairman of the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.

THE DEVIL’S MINER: Filming and Beyond

For Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, co-directors of THE DEVIL’S MINER, their roles as impartial observers became blurred as they joined Basilio and Bernardino Vargas, the boys in the film, down in the mines of Cerro Rico.

“We tried to capture the unfolding drama without losing sight of the child's safety,” says Davidson. “We were constantly faced with the moral dilemma that many filmmakers are faced with: at what point do you stop shooting and intervene? We did intervene a couple of times when we felt Basilio was seriously at risk, but overall we felt it was important to show the harsh reality of the miners.”

Close-up of a young Bolivian boy and younger girl wearing wool caps and
jackets. He is smiling, she is covering her mouth laughing; a bright blue
sky, with snow on the mountains in the background
Bernardino and his little sister Vanessa

After the film was over, the filmmakers realized that their job was just beginning, according to Davidson: “It was not until we finished editing that we realized the film's potential to raise awareness about the global issue of dangerous child labor. We contacted the International Labor Organization and the United Nations, and they screened the film at their headquarters.

Davidson and Ladkani have been working with international organizations such as the ILO, CARE, Kindernothilfe (KNH) / Help the Children and others dedicated to ending dangerous child labor in Bolivia.

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