Learning, not laboring
That there are children in our midst forced to work in the most deplorable circumstances is a continuing problem, trumping the Philippines’ vaunted economic growth.
A 2014 survey conducted by the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research Inc. (Eiler) and Quidan Kaisahan showed that child labor is still prevalent, and in “worsening working conditions” all over the country. “Child labor, especially in plantations and mines, provide no means by which children and their families may escape the vicious cycle of generational poverty,” the study reported. “Child laborers work the same kind of jobs and generate just enough income to eat and work the same day.”
Consider the case of Jeraldine “Pitang” Macapaar Aboy, now 14. Pitang began working in a sugarcane field in Bukidnon beside her father when she was six but had to replace him two years later, when he was stricken by a kidney ailment, according to a report by the Inquirer’s Rima Granali. The child cleared the plantation of grass, gathered and loaded sugarcane in trucks, and torched what could not be used of the crop—all these while trying to overcome a constant fear of being bitten by snakes. (“I am very afraid of snakes,” Pitang said at a forum titled “Ending the Worst Forms of Child Labor in the Philippines” last week. “I [saw] how my fellow child laborer was bitten by a snake while we were clearing grass in the plantation.”) All these, too, amid blistering heat and incredibly long days (4 a.m. to 7 p.m), for P120 daily and no medical attention for sickness or injury.
Much has been written about this horrific kind of child abuse in the past. This new report underscores that the practice is still rampant, in both urban and rural areas.
Pitang’s story is particularly poignant, illustrating the huge responsibility thrust on her tender shoulders: her father’s medication and sustenance for her family.
But hope springs for Pitang and more than 100 others like her. They returned to school last year under the sponsorship of “Bata Balik-Eskwela,” a project implemented by Eiler and funded by the European Union. Through this project, “the children are in a way saved from risking life and limb to do hazardous work out in the fields and inside mining tunnels,” said Eiler executive director Anna Leah Escresa-Colina.
The survey results confirmed what is more or less common knowledge: Child laborers are forced to take, or are even plied by their employers with, illegal drugs in order to stay awake and alert. They live lives that are brutish and short, and are afflicted by diseases brought about by their appalling work conditions. Surely this is child abuse, which, as European Union Ambassador Guy Ledoux pointed out, is “unacceptable wherever and whenever it happens.” He said that through the “Bata Balik-Eskwela” project, the European Union would “continue cooperating with the national government and civil society to make [child abuse] a thing of the past.”
Pitang Aboy’s story is in fact not uncommon. According to a survey funded by the International Labor Organization and conducted by the National Statistics Office in 2012, 5.59 million Filipino children aged 5-17 were working—a leap from the 4 million tallied in a similar survey done in 2001. Worse, the 2012 survey showed that 2.993 million of these child laborers were working in hazardous conditions.
The Philippine government has pledged to reduce these disturbing figures by 75 percent by this year, as part of the country’s millennium development goals. This is, of course, aside from the fact that employers of child laborers are in clear violation of Republic Act No. 7610, that was amended to ensure the protection of “children gravely threatened or endangered by circumstances which affect or will affect their survival and normal development and over which they have no control.”
The situation of child laborers can very well serve as context to former street child Glyzelle Palomar’s anguished question to Pope Francis (and to society at large): Why does God allow bad things to happen to children, and why are there so few people to help us?
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