Pinoy Oliver Twists
Yesterday was the 200th birth anniversary of one of England’s most popular writers, Charles Dickens. He turned out 15 novels, several of which were made into plays and films in the 20th century. The “Christmas Carol” is perhaps the most well known, with several film versions of Mr. Scrooge (Bah humbug!) and Tiny Tim. “Oliver Twist” was another popular novel converted into a film musical, “Oliver,” in 1969.
Dickens’ works were called social novels, scathing commentaries on poverty in Victorian England. His novels should be made required reading for our English classes, made more relevant for Filipino students if teachers can discuss how so many the social problems described by Dickens persist throughout the world and especially in the Philippines.
Dickens himself was a victim of this poverty, his parents sent to prison for not being able to pay debts. Dickens was known to have worked as early as the age of 12, which was not uncommon in England at that time.
Benjamin Disraeli, who later became prime minister, wrote a novel “The Two Nations” in 1845, the two nations referring to Britain’s rich and poor. Friedrich Engels, the son of a rich factory owner, saw the poverty around him and in 1845, wrote “The Condition of the Working Class in England,” an excerpt of which, except for the reference to chimneys, could apply to one of Manila’s slums:
“The cottages are old, dirty and of the smallest sort, the streets uneven, fallen into ruts, and in parts without drains and pavement masses of refuse, offal and sickening filth lie among standing pools in all directions the atmosphere is poisoned by the effluvia from these, laden and darkened by the smoke of a dozen tall chimneys. A horde of ragged women and children swarm about here, as filthy as the swine that thrive upon the garbage heaps.”
This was the Engels who wrote, with Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto,” a reaction to the harsh problems of inequity brought about by industrial capitalism.
England, and not China, was the workshop of the world at that time. The Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th century in England, allowed factory mass production of commodities which were then exported throughout the world. The cheap cotton exports were disastrous, wiping out many local textile industries. In our own Panay island, home-based weavers were known worldwide for their exquisite piña, sinamay and other local textiles but these home industries virtually disappeared as cheap British textiles flooded the Philippines.
The production of these textiles also came at great cost to Britain’s children, many of whom became factory workers at an early age. Economist Douglas Galbi, in an article in the Journal of Population Economics, cites a survey from 1788 that found two-thirds of workers in English and Scottish cotton mills were children. Factory owners preferred children over adults because the young were easier to train and also argued that the earlier a child was made to work, the better it was for building character.
It was not until 1831 when Britain passed a law regulating the employment of children in factories. Children aged 11 to 18 were not supposed to work more than 12 hours a day, while those aged 9 to 11 were limited to an 8-hour work day. Children below the age of 9 were not allowed to work.
Reading about that minimum age of 9 in British factories reminded me of the moves from some of our senators to bring down the age of criminal liability from 15 to 9. Then, as now, we seem to fear children when they become teenagers (even if only aged 10), and think that we can mold their character by putting them to work, or throwing them into jail if they are delinquent. But the children can’t vote so it’s easier for politicians to placate the adults and never mind the parents who neglect their children and create the growing hordes of batang hamog, children of the dew, who roam the streets.
The central theme of Dickens’ Oliver Twist was the way children were being pushed into crime. Children were used not just because they were more agile for pick-pocketing and burglary but also because they were obedient and compliant. Then, as now, children were exploited as well for prostitution and, in the 21st century, this includes Internet pornography.
In 19th-century Britain, some of the harshest working conditions were those of coal mines, where children were hired because they could crawl through narrow tunnels. If that shocks you, don’t forget children work as well in our gold mines, exposed to mercury fumes. In addition, an International Labor Organization report in 2006, “Child Labour in Gold Mining,” describes Filipino children doing compressor mining, where they have to dive into pools of mud “wearing crude eye masks and breathing oxygen from a tube with the help of a compressor.”
In 19th-century England, as in 21st century Philippines, children were paid little or nothing at all as domestic workers, and were sent out into the streets to sell flowers and cheap goods. These child street vendors are so common that no one seems to care anymore about getting them off the streets. The kids risk not only life, limb and lungs but also become hardened and cynical, alternating between asking for pity and threatening or cursing motorists who don’t buy.
In 1998 the Philippines ratified an international agreement, the Convention Regarding Minimum Age for Admission to Employment. Countries were allowed to choose their minimum age as long as it was not lower than 14. We chose 15, but the US Department of Labor, in a 2010 report “Worse Forms of Child Labor,” estimates we have some 2.7 million child workers, many of whom could be reincarnations of characters in Dickens’ social novels. The figure of 2.7 million should not be surprising considering that for the school year 2009-2010, we had 800,000 children dropping out of elementary schools and another 434,000 out of high schools.
Dickens’ Oliver Twist survived. Many Pinoy versions of Oliver are less fortunate. In 2004 Ditsi Carolino produced a film “Bunso” following three children in and out of jail. (That was before we passed a law forbidding the incarceration of children in adult jails.) All three children were dead by 2005: two killed in vehicular accidents and one, addicted to drugs, died handcuffed to his hospital bed.
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