Some children made a bit of money during this yearly interlude of remembering the dead. According to the Inquirer report by Quezon correspondent Delfin Mallari Jr., the “lettering boys” cleaned and repainted tombs and grave markers for amounts ranging from P100 (for sprucing up just the names and dates on tombstones) to P350 (for “the whole package”); they have been plying their seasonal “trade” for the last couple of years.
There is a plucky quality to these enterprising young people, but they also serve to highlight the darker issue of child labor—a particularly distressing fact of life in this country. A 2012 survey conducted by the National Statistics Office and financed by the International Labor Organization showed that 5.59 million Filipino children aged 5-17 were already in the labor force, up from 4 million documented in a 2001 ILO survey. “We’re surprised by this,” Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz was quoted as saying last year. She reiterated the labor department’s pledge “to do our utmost in making every barangay in the country with high child labor incidence child-labor-free.”
Too often, Filipino children are forced to work at odd jobs despite their tender age—in the farms, in factories, in quarrying, even in firecracker production. Indeed, another alarming discovery of the 2012 ILO survey was that 2.993 million of the 5.59 million child laborers were working in hazardous conditions. NSO Administrator Carmelita Ericta said these children should have been identified as engaged in activities such as the sex trade, drug trafficking, or combat, but were not because they had lied about what they did. “They could say they’re waitresses when they’re actually prostituted children,” Ericta said. She also said these children “are the ones exposed to chemicals, biological hazards like bacteria which cause diseases, or physical hazards.”
The toll such terrible toiling takes on children has begun to be revealed. In June, a 14-year-old boy in Zamboanga City committed suicide after complaining about having to work at a rubber plantation because of his family’s dire financial situation. In February, authorities rescued six children from a junk shop in Las Piñas City where they were made to dismantle electronic components, exposing them to toxic stuff like mercury and lead. Last year, the Inquirer reported that schoolchildren living in villages close to a gold-rich mountain in Sarangani were made to skip classes on Fridays so they could haul soil from the tunnels.
The “lettering boys” of Quezon may be doing a “light” job, rather like kids who take on summer jobs for money to buy such childhood joys as “cheeseburgers and junk food” or to lose themselves in video games. But there is also the poignant detail of “Titong,” who said he would turn over his earnings to his parents to augment the family budget and also for his school allowance. His case illustrates the reality of children being forced to work because of family circumstances. “We have to get to the root of child labor which is linked with poverty and lack of decent and productive work,” ILO country director Lawrence Jeff Johnson remarked last year. “While we strive to keep children in school and away from child labor, we need to ensure decent and productive work for parents and basic social protection for families.”
The Philippines has promised to reduce by 75 percent the worst forms of child labor by the year 2015. It is part of the country’s United Nations millennium development goals for achieving universal education. In fact, the Philippines has a powerful law against child labor—Republic Act No. 7610, also known as the Special Protection of Children Against Child Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act, which was amended in 2003 to include this important provision: “It shall be the policy of the State to protect and rehabilitate children gravely threatened or endangered by circumstances which affect or will affect their survival and normal development and over which they have no control.”
It’s there, in black and white. Filipino children should not be forced to work because their families are mired in poverty. The young should be protected from such unfair circumstances. They will grow up soon enough, and they should not be obliged to take upon their shoulders the responsibilities of their elders. Let them not lose their childhood in such desperate ways.
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