In general, artisanal miners work in hazardous conditions (physical and hygienic) because their activities are carried out using little technology and machinery, carried out by individuals, groups or communities, usually informally (illegally) and in developing countries.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) has classified the main health risks, which are: exposure to dust (silicosis), exposure to mercury and other chemicals, the effects of noise and vibration, the effects of poor ventilation ( heat, humidity, lack of oxygen), and the effects of excessive exertion, insufficient space to work and inadequate equipment.
This activity is carried out without complying with the requirements of the administrative, technical, social and environmental regulations that govern said activities.
Today, two out of every three mining workers are hired by "services", through which several mining companies seek to avoid obligations and responsibilities. They receive low salaries, run the risk of being fired, obstacles to the formation of unions, and in many cases, they do not provide with adequate housing conditions.
The violation of labor rights is repeated frequently in many mining companies, due to the arbitrariness with which the "services" and "contratas" operate. In the case of Peru, mining had a boom that is reflected in the employment of the sector, which increased from 53,000 people in 1987 to 109,000 people in 2006.
However, this growth hides deep problems and injustices that must be corrected.
According to the study of "Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime", carried out between February and December 2015, in countries such as Peru and Colombia the value of illegal gold exports exceeds cocaine exports.
Despite the fact that world prices have gradually decreased in recent years, informal miners have continued to drive the expansion of illegal gold mining.
The report estimates that approximately 28% of the gold extracted in Peru, 30% of the gold extracted in Bolivia, 77% of the gold extracted in Ecuador, 80% of the gold extracted in Colombia and 80-90% of Venezuelan gold comes from illegal mining. The report also concludes that illegal gold mining facilitates money laundering and corruption.
One of the greatest risks of gold mining is the use of mercury, which is extremely toxic, so that the decantation of gold using mercury becomes a dangerous process not only for the miners, but also for anyone who is in the vicinity of mining operations.
According to Mercury Watch, the miners' protection measures "do not exist due to the unique chemical peculiarities of mercury, which adheres to hair, skin and clothing for days, which produces very high exposure levels."
How does the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining affect the environment? For places with high concentrations of mercury metal, usually located in or near watercourses, are called "critical mining areas".
Artisanal and small-scale mining has been known to involve a significant number of children in this work, as published in several news reports on child labor in coal mines in Colombia since the 1990´s.
Child labour in mining has its roots in poverty. Children work in the mines to help their parents and supplement the family income in order to buy basic consumer goods such as clothing and food.
Usually, children increase the spectrum of work as they grow older. From the age of three, some start washing gold, while from six they can break rocks with hammers or wash ore. However, from nine onwards, children can be found working underground and doing the same work as adults.