Women of Colombia’s emerald mines shine after smashing taboo
Women of Colombia’s emerald mines shine after smashing taboo
Canon and others like her have spent their lives as “guaqueras,” or fortune hunters, sifting stray gems from the shale gouged from rock and spewed out as waste from the mines in the lush mountains of northern Colombia.
“The idea of getting an emerald brought me here and I’ve stayed in the hope that the Baby Jesus will put one on my shovel,” said the 63-year-old Canon, her face chiseled by the sun.
Canon arrived at the end of the 1970s in the Andean town of Muzo, known as the emerald capital of the world.
The women who came here, some running from violent relationships, could not work in the tunnels alongside the men because of the macho prejudice that they brought bad luck. The country’s laws additionally prevented women from going down the mines.
“It has always been said in this region that the emeralds hid when they would enter,” says Maria Luisa Durance, a 39-year-old social worker at Mining Texas Colombia (MTC), a leading company in the sector with 800 employees.
Every day for more than three decades, Canon has put on her rubber boots and joined dozens of other fortune hunters sifting through the mine waste in the fast-flowing Las Animas river.
Global fascination for emeralds dates back to pre-Columbian civilizations.
Ships from the Spanish conquest exported the precious stones as far away as Persia, and in the 20th century the mountain was practically disfigured by explosives used to shift walls of rock.
Colombia now produces around two thirds of the world’s emeralds, most of them from the Muzo area, around 150 kilometers (100 miles) north of the capital Bogota.
The modernized mines now produce less waste shale. But even so, men and women of all ages still cling to their shovels and sieves, seeking their fortune in the tons of mine tailings thrown into the river.
“This is a fever,” admits Canon, who has raised her three children with the proceeds from the job.
From time to time, someone will strike it lucky, finding sparkling green stones in a wash of shale, but for the most part, the guaqueros — men and women alike — live in debt to local merchants.
“They lend us money and when we find a stone, they take it,” said Blanca Buitrago. “For a long time now, I haven’t found anything.”
But sometimes, Buitrago says, she can find gems that will bring in between 65 and 165 dollars, “no more.”
Buitrago, a 52-year-old mother of five, arrived in Muzo to seek her fortune after being forced out of her home by one of Colombia’s dozens of armed groups in 2006.
In 2015, women were finally allowed to enter the mines when the sexist law that prevented them was annulled.
But like Canon and many other guaqueras, Buitrago is now too old to benefit from the law and get a formal job at the mines.
However, Saida Canizales, 40, was able to take advantage of the change and she is currently the only woman among 18 MTC security supervisors.
“Obviously women joining the mines has been a challenge... but I think I’ve already taken it forward,” says Canizales, an expert in electronic surveillance, who tripled the 600-dollar salary she was getting in Bogota.
Wearing a black helmet that barely covered her blonde braids, Canizales headed deep into the mine to monitor gems being extracted from the rock.
Later — and 140 meters (460 feet) deeper — a miner using a jackhammer broke through the rock face as Canizales watched.
A powdery white vein of calcite appeared, and a smudge of green dust — a tell-tale sign of a gem.
In the shifting beams of head torches, a geologist delicately chipped at the rock with his pick until a few emerald stones tumbled into his palm. He slipped the stones into a bag that Canizales sealed, before making her way back up to the surface.
Luis Miguel Ayala said he is unfazed by having a woman supervisor in what until recently has exclusively been a man’s world.
“Anyone with the ability to use the tools can do this job,” said the 23-year-old, wiping the sweat from his eyes as temperatures in the shaft reached 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) with 90 percent humidity.
Hiring women has been “a very successful policy,” MTC chairman Charles Burgess told AFP. The women “are very hardworking, honest and proud of their work.”
“Although obviously there are jobs that are not suitable for them because the work is sometimes very hard physically,” said the 62-year old former US diplomat, who is married to a Colombian.
But introducing women in the shafts was not easy. When the huge elevator that takes them down from the surface was operated for the first time by a woman, no miner would take the risk of going with her. An engineer finally stepped forward to set an example.
Two years later, some 15 women known as “malacateras” handle these machines, most of them single mothers or widows who left violent homes.
Adriana Perez escaped a poverty ridden childhood to get here. The day she could go down the mine, she said “my life changed.”
Her $600 salary is more than twice the minimum wage. For her, the mine allows her to dream of a better future for her two children.
Click and save: websites help Asian maids escape debt bondage
- From Asia to the Middle East, thousands of migrant domestic workers are trapped in debt and cannot escape, even if they are abused, as they have to work to repay the recruiters that found them work and often make deductions from their monthly wages
- Of about 3,000 recruitment agencies in Hong Kong, the government told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that 42 were convicted between 2012 and 2017 for violating laws
HONG KONG/BEIRUT: Worn out and empty, it was past midnight when Filipino maid Genelie Millan dragged herself back to her room, took out her phone to search for a way to escape her abusive employer — and came across a website that changed her life. HelperChoice is one of several online services cutting out the middleman — recruiters who charge would-be maids exorbitant fees – and helping them to avoid getting trapped in debt bondage to exploitative employers.
Since leaving her 11-year-old son in the Philippines to work in Hong Kong in 2010, Millan had been forced to sleep on a sofa and hit with a pair of chopsticks before finding the site which let her choose her own, more sympathetic boss. “They treat me like their family, they trust me a lot,” the 39-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
From Asia to the Middle East, thousands of migrant domestic workers are trapped in debt and cannot escape, even if they are abused, as they have to work to repay the recruiters that found them work and often make deductions from their monthly wages.
Affluent financial hub Hong Kong is one of the biggest destinations for maids in Asia, with some 370,000 women from the Philippines and Indonesia heading in large numbers to work there, according to government data.
Millan borrowed 100,000 Philippine pesos ($1,915) to pay recruiters when she moved to the southern Chinese city – a huge sum for someone from a poor Filipino family.
The Hong Kong-based HelperChoice website provides a platform for employers and helpers to connect directly and promises to help them find the “perfect match in an ethical way.”
For a fee starting at HK$350 ($45), potential employers can log on to the portal and access a database of job-seeking helpers to set up interviews. Helpers do not pay to register.
Employers can choose to pay more for additional services such as having the paperwork done on their behalf.
“It’s a win-win situation,” HelperChoice’s chief executive Alexandra Golovanow said, adding that both employers and helpers can keep looking until they find the right candidate.
The website, set up in 2012, has found jobs for about 8,000 maids, Golovanow said, adding that its popularity was due in part to heightened awareness about their mistreatment.
In Hong Kong, laws stipulate recruiters cannot charge more than 10 percent of a helper’s first month salary but a study by campaign group Rights Exposure showed in reality maids are often overcharged, sometimes 25 times the legally permitted amount.
“In some cases, employment agencies also take away their passport. Helpers just can’t leave because they have no paper, no documentations,” Golovanow said.
“This is modern slavery — people have no alternatives.”
A similar initiative, Hong Kong-based Fair Employment Agency (FEA) also allows employers and helpers to register online and only charges the bosses for the hiring.
Unlike HelperChoice, a team of staff at FEA help match maids to bosses based on criteria they have entered on their profile.
The FEA has placed 2,000 helpers with employers since it was set up in 2015 and estimates it has saved these workers altogether some $3 million — money which would otherwise have gone to recruiters.
“Right now the reason why recruitment is so mired in these unethical things is because there are too many players and no accountability,” said Victoria Ahn from the Fair Employment Foundation, which runs the FEA project.
“Technology will play a huge role in clearing that up and reducing the number of players.”
Despite such efforts to clean up the industry, activists say the multimillion-dollar recruitment trade will continue and the government must step up its actions against unscrupulous firms.
Of about 3,000 recruitment agencies in Hong Kong, the government told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that 42 were convicted between 2012 and 2017 for violating laws, but it did not specify if the convictions were related to overcharging.
“Vigorous enforcement action will be taken out against any employment agencies’ contravention to the law,” a spokesman from the labor department said in emailed comments.
Hong Kong this year introduced laws with heavier fines and three-year prison terms for recruiters overcharging helpers.
Such initiatives are also slowly making inroads in the Middle East, which is known for its notorious “kafala” sponsorship system that binds migrant workers to one employer.
The controversial system has long been criticized by activists for exploiting workers and denying them the ability to travel or change jobs without their employer’s consent.
Filipino helper Sheryl Cruz, who is based in Qatar, found out about HelperChoice through Facebook when she was searching for a job after her employer died from cancer in 2016.
Reluctant to go a recruitment agency that would give her no say in who she could work for, she used the portal to connect with a Pakistani family in the Gulf kingdom looking for a maid.
“You can see all the (employers) and what they are looking for and contact them directly,” the 31-year-old said.
Cruz, who has 12 years experience as a domestic worker, felt empowered as, for the first time, she was able to set her own terms when negotiating for the new job — she asked for a day off and a higher salary.
“I felt good setting my salary,” she said.
For Millan in Hong Kong, HelperChoice was a godsend.
Living with a boss she likes is a big change, having begged a previous employer to treat her “as a person, not an animal.”
Despite all the hardship, she does not think about quitting.
“I always think about my son — my son’s future,” she said, smiling at other domestic workers who, like her, were enjoying a Sunday break in a Hong Kong park.