Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
“We cannot rest until child labor (is eliminated),” United Nations official Guy Ryder told delegates of the Fifth Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labor held in Durban, South Africa, last May 16.
“Child labor is a violation of a basic human right, and our goal must be that every child, everywhere, is free from it,” said Ryder, director-general of the Geneva-based International Labor Organization (ILO).
The latest figures indicate that 160 million children – almost one in ten worldwide – are still being affected. Furthermore, numbers are on the rise, with the pandemic threatening to reverse years of progress.
“Child labor is an enemy of our children’s development and an enemy of progress,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. “No civilization, no country, and no economy can consider itself to be at the forefront of progress of its success and riches have been built on the backs of children.”
The ILO defines child labor as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity” – all of which are harmful to the physical and mental development of children who are 5 to 17 years old.
In the Philippines, there were 31.17 million children in that age bracket in 2020. Of this total, 2.8% (872,000) were working, according to a labor force survey of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).
Working children were higher among boys compared to girls. Of the 2020 data, 66.7% (582,000) were boys while only 33.3% (291,000) were girls.
Older age groups (15 to 17) were more likely to work than the younger ones. In fact, the majority of the working children belonged to the age group 15 to 17 years of age, accounting for 68.9% of the total working children in 2020. The majority of the working children had to work 20 hours or less per week.
Across the regions, for every 100 working children in 2020, around 12 resided in Northern Mindanao and about 11 in the Bicol region. Davao Region and Cagayan Valley each had less than three working children for every 100 working children.
In a previous PSA survey done in 2019, it was found that 97.7% of the country’s child laborers were doing hazardous work. More than half (58.4%) were engaged in agriculture, 34.6% in the services sector, and 7% in the industry group.
Also, in 2019, the regional office of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) recorded 7,984 child laborers in the Davao region. Of the total, Davao del Norte topped (with 2,115 child laborers), followed by Davao City (1,520), Davao de Oro (1,441), Davao Occidental (1,1349), Davao del Sur (1,052), and Davao Oriental (717).
Most of the child laborers belong to poor family. Take the case of 8-year-old Manuel. It’s only five o’clock in the morning, but he is already wide awake. He is not getting ready for school but rather going to the public market in Bangkerohan to sell vegetables. He has to walk about an hour to reach the market. Along the way, he would see children all heading to school.
“I wish I could go to school like them, but I have to work or my family would starve,” he says, adding that he would receive about P100 for selling vegetables at the end of the day. He knows that the money is not enough to help his family, but it is better than nothing at all.
Manuel’s case may be sad, but he is better off than others. “The worst forms of child labor involve children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities – often at a very early age,” the ILO states.
The story of Jenny is a case in point. She was barely 16 when she was recruited by a woman to work in Davao City, some 10 kilometers away from her hometown. The woman told the grandmother that her grandchild would get P200 a day.
For a poor family, the amount was too good to be true. When Jenny heard about it, she was adamant at first. But since the woman was already a familiar figure in the neighborhood, she accepted the offer – with the consent of the grandmother, who never knew what would happen to her apo once she arrived in the city.
All the while, Jenny thought she would just serve barbecue to customers. But she was wrong. She was forced to dance and perform other entertainment acts expected of bar girls before the male customers gathered inside the establishment.
The following day, her employer, whom she described as a “maniac,” raped her. It was the beginning of her worst nightmare. Since she had nothing to lose anymore, she had sex with some of her customers.
By the time she turned 17, she was on her own as a freelance sexual worker. Every week, she sent some money to her family in the province. “I really didn’t want to be like this,” said Jenny, who’s now 19. “But I have to. My mother is very sickly now and my father has no work.”
Reality bites, indeed. To think, Section 13, Article II of the Philippine Constitution emphasizes the importance of the role of the child in the Filipino family.
It said: “The State recognizes the vital role of the youth in nation-building and shall promote and protect their physical, moral, spiritual, intellectual, and social well-being. It shall inculcate in the youth patriotism and nationalism, and encourage their involvement in public and civic affairs.”
Stunted in height, child laborers look much older than their years. Most child laborers in the country are exploited to the hilt. “Some unscrupulous individuals take advantage of the situation – the innocence of the child on human and labor rights, and cheap labor costs – by employing kids as laborers,” a lawmaker once pointed out.
As stated earlier, most child laborers in the country work in the agriculture sector. There are two boys for every girl, especially in agriculture.
In Davao City, most of the child laborers work in durian and banana plantations. These children are exposed to harmful pesticides and chemicals, making them vulnerable to diseases.
“While most children are working in the farms, there are also those who work in construction sites,” said a study. “Around 3 percent are actually in the mines, quarries, or factory sites.”
Poverty and irresponsibility of some parents had been among the leading causes of child labor in the country, according to Borongan Bishop Crispin Varquez of Eastern Samar said. “First, some parents are really irresponsible, that’s why children are forced to work. Second, parents do not have enough income… poverty,” the bishop wrote in an article posted on the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines news site.
In the sugar fields of Northern Mindanao, the use of child labor is so common that some landowners shrug it off as a way of life. “The parents beg us to include their children to work,” one landowner said. “They like to have their children employed because there’s more income for the families.”
In Davao City, poverty has also been cited as the reason why some minors are engaged in the flesh industry. “We cannot blame them for getting into that,” said Jeanette Ampog, executive director of Talikala, a non-government organization on prostituted children and women. “We also cannot decide for them. We can only let them realize what is right.”
Apart from poverty as the principal cause of child labor, there are other contributing factors, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). These are increasing pattern of family breakdown and weakening of the extended family system and other support groups; high population growth and changing family values and lifestyles, which may lead to unwanted children, promiscuity, and solo parenthood; poor enforcement of laws due to ignorance of the law, corruption or apathy; socialization of children into work; and support for children’s work in formal education.
As stated earlier, most child laborers work under exploitative conditions. Wages of child laborers are often below adult rates, even if they work adult hours, usually six days a week and even doing overtime. Children do not get the benefits guaranteed by law to regular workers.
One author wrote: “Some children are hired because they can be paid a lot less than the minimum wage, they require less food intake, tire less easily and they have no need to apply for such things as medical plans, SSS (Social Security System) or retirement. Tasks like carrying heavy cement bags are assigned to these children because they are said to be stronger anyway.”
Some believe child labor could be addressed with the help of several laws such as the Anti-Child Labor Law (Republic Act 9231), the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act (Republic Act 10364), and the Domestic Workers Act (Republic Act 10361).
The Anti-Child Labor Law protects children from being engaged into work outside the protection of their parents or guardian and that which might endanger their life, safety, and development. On the other hand, the Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act protects children from being trafficked through its strengthened provisions, which also covers attempted trafficking and accessory or accomplice liability.
Meanwhile, the Domestic Workers Act deems it unlawful to employ children below 15 years of age as a domestic worker or kasambahay, while those who are 15 years old but below 18 years of age are considered as working children and are protected under the Anti-Child Labor Act.
“We must strictly implement these laws and give back to these working children the happy and normal childhood they deserve. The time will come when they must work, but for as long as they are our children, they must be protected, cared for, and assured of their rights as children,” said Loren Legarda in a statement.
“Robbed of their childhood” was the title of the EDGE Davao editorial some years back. It said: “Children are especially vulnerable to official neglect, and we see this in the existence of kids who at their young age are forced to work before they can even read. And that is the greater tragedy: already forced to grow up way ahead of their time, their future is also taken away from them because they are unable to go to school.”
But not all child labors, however, are exploitative in nature. “The participation of children or adolescents above the minimum age for admission to employment in work that does not affect their health and personal development or interfere with their schooling, is generally regarded as being something positive,” the ILO states.
Among those that cannot be considered child labor are activities such as assisting in a family business or earning pocket money outside school hours and during school holidays. “These kinds of activities contribute to children’s development and to the welfare of their families; they provide them with skills and experience, and help to prepare them to be productive members of society during their adult life,” the ILO explains.