Hesperian Health Guides

Social Problems

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 21: Mining and Health > Social Problems

Mining affects people’s health directly, when people work in dangerous conditions and are exposed to toxic chemicals. It also affects people’s health through the social problems it brings. Mining towns and camps develop quickly, with little planning or care. This usually causes many problems. Men come looking for work in the mines, women who need income become sex workers, and this combination can lead to the rapid passing of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. The sudden wealth and sudden poverty that mining brings is often accompanied by increased violence against women and children, abuse of workers by mine owners, and fights for control over resources. Many people are forced to leave the community by the violence or because it becomes impossible for them to continue living as they did before the mine opened.

A woman speaks.
Women bear an enormous share of the costs to people and the enviroment from large mining projects.

Mining provides a livelihood for millions of people, often in areas where there are few other sources of income. But riches in the ground do not always result in wealth for miners. The nature of the mining industry is to exploit every last piece of earth and every available worker, sacrificing the health, human rights, and environment of mining communities.

A man speaks.
The union protects my health, my job, and my benefits. When the company is so big and powerful, workers have to get organized.

Joining or forming a workers organization has proven to be the most effective strategy for miners to earn a decent living, and to defend their human and environmental rights. Miners’ unions together with their allies have forced companies and governments to make and follow rules that protect miners’ health and safety. However, unions often place more importance on miners’ short-term needs for jobs and income than on preventing long-term health problems caused by mining and mineral use (for example, pollution from burning coal for energy).

When a mining operation is too dangerous, unhealthy, or polluting, it should be shut down. But mine workers should not be abandoned to unemployment and poverty. Communities must demand that plans for their well-being and livelihood are included in plans for and costs of shutting down the mine.

Protecting Children

4 children in a classroom.

Children often work in mining to help their families. Working long hours under difficult conditions is dangerous for them, creates serious problems for their growing bodies and soft bones, and leaves them no time to go to school. Child labor is illegal under international law. If mining companies provided good wages and benefits for adult workers, children could go to school instead of to work.

School and nutrition for child miners

When men and women go to work in the stone quarries in India, their children often go to work with them. This is the way it has always been. Without education and organizing for change, this is the way it will always be.

In Pune, India, the children who work in the stone quarry are malnourished and covered from head to toe in rock dust. Some social workers started a volunteer group called Santulan to work with these children. “Children have basic rights to education, good health, and childhood,” they said. To promote these rights they started schools in the quarries.

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First, Santulan trained new teachers. Some women quarry workers were taught songs and other teaching methods, and given pencils, paper, chalkboards, and books. Some quarry owners offered spaces for Santulan to hold classes. In other quarries, the workers themselves organized classrooms.

Once the children started going to school, the teachers realized they would not learn without food to eat during the day. Santulan began to provide rice, lentils, and boiled eggs. This gave the parents another reason to let their children go to school. Not only did the children learn, but they came home with full bellies.

A few years after the quarry schools opened, over 3000 children were participating in classes. Many are the first in their families to read and write. The children sing songs, learn history, and, above all, learn they have the right to education and the right to childhood.