Grueling, dangerous and pays little
Work at one of the many gold mines in Mine Naung, in the Mohnyin district of Myanmar’s Kachin state, is grueling, dangerous and pays little—when it pays at all.
Gold mines encompass a total area of about 500 acres (200 hectares) in the village.Gold mines encompass a total area of about 500 acres (200 hectares) in the village, and many sites operate at depths of more than 150 feet (45 meters) underground in their hunt for the precious metal.
Entering one five-acre (two-hectare) mine requires climbing over massive piles of excavated earth before descending to the bottom of a pit, where young men and women wade knee-deep in mud as a water suction pump sifts through the surrounding sand, dirt and gravel for gold.
Lin Naing Oo, from the Pamatee neighborhood of the Kachin state capital Myitkyina, has worked at the site for more than five years. He told RFA’s Myanmar Service that wages at the mine vary wildly, based on daily intake.
“Today we may get one kyat; tomorrow 50 pyas – it’s irregular,” he said. There are 100 pyas in a kyat, the Myanmar currency, worth 0.00084 of a U.S. dollar
Gold miners must decide whether they want to work for daily wages or for a stake in the mine’s profits when they are hired, according to Lin Naing Oo, who is a share worker.
“Wage workers receive a fixed payment … As for us share workers, [the owners] deduct labor costs, fuel costs, et cetera, and then we receive the balance,” he said.
“Sometimes we don’t get a single pya of gold for the whole month,” leaving those who depend on the mine’s production with little in earnings.
Young men and women wade knee-deep in mud as a water suction pump sifts through the surrounding sand, dirt and gravel for gold.Wage workers receive 5,000 kyats (U.S. $4.15) per day for men and 3,000 kyats (U.S. $2.50) for women, and do not benefit from any discovery of gold.
Share workers, on the other hand, “share” in the profits of any gold they discover over one kyat each day. After deducting for expenses, share workers earn a quarter of the value of their findings.
Lin Naing Oo said that with such unpredictable wages, share workers do not expect to send money home to their families.
“Our parents tell us, ‘don’t send money—buy what you want or save if you can,’” he said.“Despite the little money we make, we do send some back home out of consideration for our families, and we purchase a few things that we want.”
Draw of the mines
Gold miners are as young as 14, though most are older than 20. Most call the villages in the vicinity of Mohnyin township home and have little more than an elementary or middle school education.
Local youth seek work at the Mine Naung mines to learn the methods of gold mining, while others are drawn from faraway places by the prospect of lightening their family’s financial burdens.
Gold miners are as young as 14, though most are older than 20.At 7:00 a.m. each day, the workers don their soiled clothes and coolie hats before descending into the 150-foot pits to begin their search for the dark blue-colored veins of gold that are found in rock, ore and other minerals buried within the soil.
The male workers use high-pressure water jets to unearth the deposits, while female workers are tasked with removing the stone fragments that conceal the actual gold.
The runoff soil and sand loosened by the jets is sent up from the pit to an area called “the tower,” where workers sift through it for any additional gold fragments.
At noon, the workers take an hour break for lunch and to smoke cheroots, while chatting with their friends.
Seventeen-year-old Kyaw Khaing Oo relocated to Mine Naung from Pinlebu in Sagaing region with his friends at the age of 13 to become a wage worker at the gold mines, citing a lack of jobs at home and a need to help support his family financially.
“I have been working here for more than three years and I haven’t been back home at all,” he said, adding that the quantity of gold in the area had significantly decreased since he first arrived.
Meanwhile, he said, safety conditions have worsened at the mines as owners become more desperate to make a profit.“One of our friends died recently—a column [of rock] collapsed and we all ran, but he couldn’t run fast enough and was crushed to death.”
Mine owner Too Mar, a native of Mine Naung, confirmed that it had become harder to make a profit in the local gold market and said his margins are already thin. “At present, the price of gold is running at 700,000 kyats (U.S. $585),” he said.
“If we mine 50 pyas worth, we can earn 350,000 kyats (U.S. $293) for it [before deducting the costs of running the business]. This is without any damages incurred. If there are any damages I have to pay out of my own pocket.”
Life after work
When the mine closes down for the day, most of the male workers retire to thatched roof bamboo huts near the site to sleep on the floor.When the mine closes down for the day, most of the male workers retire to thatched roof bamboo huts near the site to sleep on the floor, while the female workers return to their villages.
The female workers prefer not to take the wages they earn on a daily basis, instead allowing their supervisors to keep it until they need to send money home to their families or purchase the occasional cosmetics.
However, many of the male workers use their daily wages to purchase alcohol and drugs they say help them to unwind from the stress of regularly risking their lives while performing their jobs.
They must also endure the anxiety of knowing that their income is often not enough to support their families, many of which must borrow money from their villages in order to make ends meet and pay it back with interest.
Most workers are unable to save any money from their daily wages and instead become caught in a cycle of borrowing and paying back their debts, leaving them facing an uncertain future.
By RFA's Myanmar Service and Josh Lipes