US-based Human Rights Watch has urged the Philippines Government to act on its public commitment to ending child labour in illegal or small-scale mining in the country.

The report by the non-governmental organisation is entitled ‘What…if something went wrong: Hazardous child labour in small-scale gold mining in the Philippines’, and focuses on Filipino children working in illegal gold mines.

It states that in order to process gold with toxic metal mercury, children work in unstable 25m deep pits, or underwater along the coast or rivers.

Human Rights Watch associate children’s rights director Juliane Kippenberg said: "Filipino children are working in absolutely terrifying conditions in small-scale gold mines.

"The Philippine Government prohibits dangerous child labour, but has done very little to enforce the law."

As part of its field research conducted in Camarines Norte and Masbate provinces in 2014 and 2015, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 135 people, including 65 child miners aged between nine and 17.

The children working underground said they suffered back and body pain, skin infections, fevers, and spasms.

They also risk injury from falling rocks and wood beams, pit collapse, as well as absence of oxygen.

According to Human Rights Watch, mining underwater to dig for gold is locally known as ‘compressor mining’, and puts adult and child miners at risk of drowning, decompression sickness, and bacterial skin infections as they stay operating for several hours at a time in 10m deep shafts.

"Filipino children are working in absolutely terrifying conditions."

Children working with mercury are particularly susceptible to risks such as the attack of the central nervous system, brain damage and even death.

In order to reduce threat to children who play, swim, and pan for gold, Human Rights Watch suggests the Philippine Government should plan to introduce mercury-free gold processing.

An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people work in the country’s gold mines.

The Philippines is the world’s 20th largest gold producer, and prohibited use of mercury in mining and compressor mining in March, but so far did only a bit to implement the regulation, according to the report.

In June, Human Rights Watch urged Ghana’s mining industry to implement new laws to prevent child-labour in gold mines.

Image: Children pan for gold along the Bosigon River in Malaya, Camarines Norte. Photo: Courtesy of 2015 Mark Z Saludes for Human Rights Watch.