While mine workers around the world organize to defend their rights and protect their health and safety in the workplace, the painful fact is that miners, like the minerals they produce, are still treated as a disposable resource.
Mining is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world-the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates just one percent of the world's labor force is engaged in mining, while the industry accounts for five percent of on-the-job fatalities — from rock falls, tunnel collapses, fires, heat exhaustion, and other dangers.
Mining can cause a range of long-term disabilities, the most significant of which are:
Extreme heat in deep shaft mining (temperatures can get as high as 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees F)) and high atmospheric pressure can raise blood pressure and damage the nervous system.
Photo credit: Nana Buxani
In some countries, the lifespan of miners is substantially lower than that of the general population. In Bolivia, for example, the average miner in the tin mines of Potosí will live only 35 to 40 years. The UN estimates Bolivia's general population's life expectancy at birth is about 67 years.
While mine safety is a problem around the world, the lack of strict regulation and enforcement in the developing world is especially acute. To help bridge this regulatory gap, the ILO developed the “Convention on Safety and Health in Mines” in 1995. The initiative requires governments to implement safety measures, guarantee miners' rights to form unions and to be informed of health and safety risks and precautions. But to date, only 26 countries have ratified the Convention.
In addition to these initiatives, miners ha ve also taken matters into their own hands. Many miners unions are globalizing to increase their leverage with the multinational corporations that employ them. In April 2012, union members around the world who work at Rio Tinto passed a resolution to hold that company accountable and pass measures to protect worker rights and safety.