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January 28, 2014

Young divers take big risks in the Philippines’ underwater mines

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Children in some poor rural communities in the Philippines, some as young as 13, are making a living for their families by diving into deep underwater tunnels to dig for gold in a dangerous practice known as compressor mining.

Compressor mining originated in the Philippines in the mid-1990s. The practice was inspired by fishermen, who used the compressor motors, which push air through a thin tube, to dive deep underwater to catch reef fish. But with the potential for engine breakdowns and tunnel collapses, it’s an extremely dangerous venture.

15-year-old diver Elias Delima said he makes double that of other miners, around $5 a day. When asked why he takes the risk, he said, “ To get gold, to help my parents, and to have some money for myself.”

Compressor mining was officially outlawed in the Philippines in 2012, but still goes on in outlying areas like the small village of Santa Milagrosa. Miners there pay local police $11 a month per worker to look the other way.

Beyond the immediate danger of the unregulated industry, Julie Hall of the World Health Organization says compressor mining also poses longer-term health risks for children, including the poor quality of air pushed through the compressor engines and the effects of water pressure on the body.

“It’s likely that that air that’s sucked through the tube will be mixed with diesel fumes, with carbon monoxide, with other pollutants, because it’s very close to the engine that’s driving the compressor,” she said. “The body’s under a lot of pressure. Little gas bubbles can form in your bloodstream, and those gas bubbles can block off the blood supply to little bits of your brain or little bits of your lung.”


Warm up questions
  1. Where is the Philippines? What do you know about the country? For more information about the Philippines use this country profile from the BBC.
  2. What do you know about child labor? How many children are working globally? Do you think there are more boys or more girls working? What areas of the world has the most concentration of child laborers? For more information use these numbers below from the International Labor Organization.
    • Global number of children in child labor has declined by one third since 2000, from 246 million to 168 million children. More than half of them, 85 million, are in hazardous work (down from 171 million in 2000).
    • Asia and the Pacific still has the largest numbers (almost 78 million or 9.3% of child population), but Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the region with the highest incidence of child labor (59 million, over 21%).
    • There are 13 million (8.8%) of children in child labor in Latin America and the Caribbean and in the Middle East and North Africa there are 9.2 million (8.4%).
    • Agriculture remains by far the most important sector where child laborers can be found (98 million, or 59%), but the problems are not negligible in services (54 million) and industry (12 million) – mostly in the informal economy.
    • Child labor among girls fell by 40% since 2000, compared to 25% for boys. Source: Marking progress against child labour – Global estimates and trends 2000-2012 (ILO-IPEC, 2013).
  3. What might be some of the reasons that children are working full time at such a young age and in such a dangerous job?
Discussion questions and writing prompts
  1. Outline the process of compressor mining. How safe is it?
  2. If there are laws against the practice of child labor and against compressor mining in the Philippines, why do both continue? Explain the details of the risks and the benefits for both practices.
  3. As consumers, what power do we have to help stop the practice of child labor globally?
  4. Imagine you are a young teenager working in the underwater mines. Describe what an average day is like for you and include the process of compressor mining, what your hopes are for the future, what else you would rather be doing and what is your reason for working in the mines.
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