This article was first written for SomeThinkBlue Magazine @ http://www.somethinkblue.com/article_detail.php?article_id=137
Did you know that one out of every six children in the world is involved in child labour? Almost have the world – over 3 billion people – live on less than $2.50 per day. How often do we hear about the 30 million slaves in the world today? As British citizens, we aren’t used to facing these kinds of questions. It was long ago that these rights we now take for granted were fought over, struggled through and eventually enacted into law. This article will very briefly consider some of these rights we are lucky to have in this country before using a small town in Bolivia as an example of how different things still are around the world.
Employment has inevitably played a crucial role in society and provides the framework for both how society works, and how other aspects of our moral agenda are constructed. Looking throughout the last century – there have been notable additions to our employment law. These include the Master and Servant Act; Race Relations Act; Employment Rights Act; Minimum Wage Act; Equal Pay Act; Equality Act; and the list goes on. Often, as a generation who have not necessarily experienced a time where we have had to endure these sorts of struggles, they are easily forgotten or taken for granted. One might argue it is a sign of progress that we do not see these issues as important, and that they have now become an accepted part of society. I think this is a forceful, optimistic argument, and one which is worth considering. However, it seems important to recognise that there are substantial areas in the world where these laws simply do not exist, and far from taking such rights for granted, they are a distant, if not unimaginable dream for millions of people.
Let us consider a small town in central Bolivia, famous for its historically mineral rich mine. Potosi, claimed to be one the highest cities in the world, is situated in Southern Bolivia and is home to 160,000 people. The city looms under the Cerro de Potosí, or ‘Cerro Rico’ – the rich mountain, as it’s better known. The now infamous mine enclosed by the mountain, a relic from the Spanish era dating back to the mid 1500’s, is still the main source of employment for the cities inhabitants. The mine was once hugely mineral rich, to the extent that in the 17th century, Potosi was one of the richest cities in the America’s – and was the primary supplier of silver to the Spanish Empire. In Spain, even today, if something is “worth a Potosí,” it is worth a fortune. Bolivian’s will tell you this Silver was stolen by the Spanish, and is the primary reason for their lack of wealth today, a relevant, and intriguing argument.
Potosi’s decline in economic prosperity has unsurprisingly occurred with the depletion of the mine’s resources and this is reflected across the city, both inside and outside the mine. The most profitable export from the mine is now zinc, and only the lucky few manage to get their hands on all that remains of the largely poor quality silver. An interesting factor is the structure of the mines, where the miners work as part of collectives, and therefore essentially for themselves. This is a significant issue as even when accounting for the conditions these miners face, they still choose to work in the mine, waiting literally, for that glimmer of hope.
There are two key issues here; first, that working in the mines still offers people in Potosi the best chance of gaining wealth. One example of such an occurrence was highlighted when, a now rich member of the Mining board who began life as a miner, found a large pot of silver which ensured his future outside of the mine. It is these rags to riches stories which continue to prove a great enough incentive for the men and boys in Potosi to continue to give their, inevitably shorter lives, to the mine. The second key point is that there are not more opportunities for such people away from the mine. Working from often young ages, education is secondary to the potential riches the mines offer; and who could begrudge these individuals for taking that chance? Wealth is hard to come by throughout Bolivia, regardless of one’s education. However, it is the conditions which miners face which is the most incredible aspect of the choice these Bolivian’s are left with.
Miners in Potosi face an environment which has not changed a great deal since the Spanish left, and perhaps the most frightening element is the 40 year life expectancy. The oldest miner in Potosi is 57. This tells its own story. This plight is due to the contracting of silicosis pneumonia, a disease of the lungs which arises due to the metallic, dusty nature of the narrow tunnels within the mine. Ironically, masks which the miners could wear are too uncomfortable in the unbearable heat, which rises as high as 40 degrees in the depths of the Cerro Rico. One particularly heart wrenching addition is that only once miners have 80 or 90% silicosis of the lung, are they eligible for a miners state pension, which comes with the acute knowledge that they have only months left to live.
On the other end of the spectrum, UNICEF estimates that 10 percent of the miners are children, almost exclusively boys, as young as 12 or 13 who are likely to be the sole breadwinners in the family after the father has suffered at the hands of the mine. Miners generally receive about 2 or 3 dollars a day, work between 10 and 12 hour days, and as a result, often go without seeing daylight for days, if not weeks on end. They constantly fight against hunger during long, gruelling days in the mine, and relentlessly chew Coca leaves, for energy, and as a source of respite, however small. The Cerro Rico has often been branded ‘the mountain which eats men’, a fitting description.
The dangers and health impacts of mining are well known from our own history, however, in the modern age these life expectancies and living conditions are remnant of a different era altogether. It seems abhorrent that anyone should have to suffer such extreme working conditions, in any respect, but even more so given the tiny compensation they receive through wages and other means.
If there is so much wealth in the world, how is it possible that this sort of employment still exists to the extremes that it does? We are no strangers to mining in this country, and certainly under no illusions as to its potential for wealth generation. However, it does seem remarkable that such unimaginable conditions are being effectively enforced on Potosi’s inhabitants, simply by virtue of living in the city and the limited other employment options which are available.
This article does not have an answer, or even begin to suggest one, but if nothing else, hopes to remind us of the incredibly fortunate position we find ourselves in. Returning to the questions first raised, we should be aware of the fact that these things still exist in our world – and it begs the question of why, how, and most importantly, what we are going to do about them.