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Gonzalez standing at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland during her internship.

Student humanitarian fights child labor through UN role

  • March 24, 2011

International studies senior Susana Gonzalez is lending a hand to humanity, specifically to children working in mines. As her final days of university life approach, Gonzalez already has embarked on what she hopes will be a life-long quest of combating child labor starting with a five-month summer internship she served at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

“It was a great experience,“ said Gonzalez, a Bolivia native with family ties to the mining industry. “I came back a different person.”

While writing her senior seminar paper on child mining last spring, Gonzalez learned the International Labour Organization in Geneva offered an internship program. Her international studies professor, Norman Bowen, encouraged her to apply and helped find financial assistance for the trip. A few weeks later, Gonzales found herself standing in the offices of the United Nations in Europe.

“Susana shows the exceptional effort of a personal initiative,” Bowen said. “It’s very unusual for an undergraduate to get an internship with the ILO, but it was her knowledge and experience that led her to it.”

An agency of the UN, the ILO draws up and oversees international labor standards and promotes “decent work for all.” During her internship, Gonzalez focused on child miners in developing countries. Working with the ILO, she joined the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC.)

ILO workers stationed in Indonesia who were hired to oversee conditions of mines contacted Gonzalez’s department in Geneva after noticing a significant increase in the number of families engaging in informal manganese mining. Problems they noted included a lack of protective equipment, no supervision or permit for mining and environmental damage. Gonzalez researched the health effects of manganese mining and provided feedback on child labor in mining. The information she gathered was then distributed to mining families and health service providers in Indonesia to educate and raise awareness about the negative effects mining has on its workers.

Gonzalez’s research also offered possible alternative solutions to artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM), in which families mine in isolated, mountainous locations with primitive tools. In ASM supervision is difficult and health risks are high. Most miners are famers with few economic options but to work in mines due to poor soil, insufficient techniques and no support from regional governments. The best solution to ASM is to eliminate the isolation of agricultural communities, provide links into larger development frameworks and improve agricultural techniques, Gonzalez said.

Since her great-great-grandparents owned five mines, each generation on Gonzalez’s mother’s side has followed in their footsteps. Gonzalez currently has two cousins who have careers related to mining. Memories of hearing stories about children working in her family’s silver mines pushed Gonzalez to concentrate on helping to abolish child labor. She also grew up hearing stories about local hospitals that housed men dying of silicosis, a lung disease caused by dust found in mines. 

While researching, Gonzalez found child labor in mining is common across the world. In the Philippines, Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo children mine for gold to help support their families. Mines in developing countries typically are not regulated for health or labor standards and have no government supervision.

Gonzalez’s investigative work will be a topic of discussion at the UN this summer. Her research on compressor mining will be presented to organizers of 2011 World Day, an event held by the ILO in 60 countries to raise awareness and prevent child labor. Compressor mining involves children diving into unsanitary waters for up to five hours at a time, scraping the sides and bottom of mine shafts for sediments that may contain gold.

Continuing to search for ways to improve the world and soon beginning her master’s program, Gonzalez will work alongside professors on trying to increase awareness about poverty to the Cal State East Bay community. Her ultimate goal is to work in the field of international development, helping less-fortunate countries overcome challenges. 

“Child labor can take a long time to resolve, so that’s why I’m devoting a career (to) it,” Gonzales said. “There are solutions to every problem, some take a lifetime to find.”

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