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Poverty pushes children to hard labor in Philippines

Despite laws, millions work in hazardous conditions

Poverty pushes children to hard labor in Philippines

Child scavengers work in the slums of Metro Manila. (Photo by Vincent Go)

Jefry Tupas and Joe Torres, Davao City

June 6, 2014

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When he was seven years old, Jun Rey Bigallera would wake up before dawn, not to get ready for school but to go to a public market in the southern Philippine city of Davao to sell vegetables.

Jun recalls walking for two hours to reach the market. Along the way, he would see other children his age all heading to school.

"I envied them, but I had to work and help my family or we would starve," says Jun.

Jun would go home with about $2 in his pocket, enough to feed the family with four young children for a day. 

As he and his siblings got older, Jun had to find risky jobs, like packing fertilizer and pesticides in a factory.

Now, at 16 years old, Jun is just entering high school while other children his age are already preparing for college.

This child worker case is not uncommon one in the Philippines. 

Amerina Cabanes admits that all her six children are child workers. "I ask my children to help because we honestly need help," she says.

The whole family wakes up about 2 a.m. and roams the city picking up garbage. Her only daughter started working when she was only five years old. She is now 12 and continues to help the family earn a living. The family earns just over $4 a day.

There is a law that is supposed to protect children from engaging in "any work or economic activity … that subjects him or her to any form of exploitation or is harmful to his or her health and safety, or physical, mental or psychological development."

However, the does not seem too be working with government listing some 431 child laborers in the Davao region alone, while Davao City has the highest number of child workers at 332.

A survey by the National Statistics Office in 2011 shows that there are 5.59 million child laborers in the Philippines, almost all of them working in hazardous conditions.

The survey shows that out of 29 million Filipino children aged 5-17 years old, about 19 percent or 5.59 million were already working.

Of those 5.59 million children, just over 3 million were considered child laborers while 2.9 million were reported to be exposed to hazardous working conditions.

"What is important is for the government to come up with programs that will address the problems being faced by parents of children who are into child labor," says Florie May Tacang, executive director of the children's advocacy group Kaugmaon for Children's Rights and Social Development. 

"It is very challenging to stop the practice," she says, adding that Filipino culture is "supportive of child labor." 

Tacang says Filipinos do not see and consider child labor as a form of abuse. "It is a poverty issue and is an accepted practice that must be addressed by the government," she says.

The government has so far identified 609 of the country’s poorest municipalities and some 80 villages that have the highest incidence of child labor.

Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz says the government is doing its best to end it.

"We will meet the challenge head on," she says, adding that the government "will take it one village at a time".

Baldoz said the Department of Labor is working double time and ensuring efficient periodic reports of incidents of child labor.

Aside from the formation of the Village Council for the Protection of Children, which is tasked with prosecuting the recruitment of minors, nothing much has been done.

The task of helping child workers has fallen on the hands of nongovernment groups, like the Kaugmaon for Children's Rights and Social Development, that offer education for the children and jobs for their parents.

Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, who has exposed how prevalent child labor is in the provinces, says "much is still to be done by the government".

"We need to see more government people checking on companies that hire children," the senator says, adding that the government needs to support the rehabilitation of the children and the parents.

Many parents blame themselves, including Amerina.

"I must admit that it's my fault, our fault as parents," Amerina says. "But they [the children] also want to help us because they also feel our needs. We are family," she says.

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