GEORGETOWN, Guyana – A boy who appeared no older than 8 was found panning for gold in a mining camp in Guyana, a sign that greater efforts are needed to stop child labor in the South American country, the president of a non-government organization said Monday.
The child did not appear to be in bad health but was performing dangerous work that should only be done by adults, said Simona Broomes, president of the Women Miners Association.
His exact age was not known, but he appeared to be no older than 8. He was found in the remote Puruni region, near the Venezuela border as Broome and members of her group performed a tour of work camps to check on working conditions.
The boy was placed in protective custody while she works with local authorities to locate his mother, who is believed to be working in another gold mining camp, she said.
"What concerned us the most is that he is not going to school and was talking and cursing like the other grown men in the camp and contributing to the conversation as though he is a grown man," Broomes said in a phone interview while traveling by river through the rugged region.
It is illegal for anyone under 15 to work full-time in Guyana except under certain circumstances, but the law is widely flaunted. A report from the U.S. Department of Labor in September found that there are more than 44,000 children ages 5-14 working in Guyana, including in dangerous activities in agriculture and prostitution. Most work in domestic service and on the streets, typically as vendors or beggars, the report found.
The Guyanese government, in response to international criticism, set up a task force whose members have visited camps and removed children or people found to be working under exploitative conditions.
The Gold and Diamond Miners Association said it has no statistics on the number of children working in small, independent gold-mining operations.
Thousands of independent miners have carved up the forest and polluted streams in Guyana and neighboring Suriname in recent years in the search for gold. The camps can range from just a few people to hundreds clustered in informal towns that sprout to serve the miners and then disappear when the gold runs out. Most are illegal and unregulated and a large number of the miners are illegal immigrants from Venezuela and Brazil.
"We know of cases where parents take entire families to look for gold," said Tony Shields, a spokesman for the association.