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First Posted on Inside Mindanao (www.insidemindanao.com) on November 22, 2009

Sibugay undocumented child laborers dream of bright tomorrow
By Antonio M. Manaytay

ALICIA, ZAMBOANGA SIBUGAY—Lanky 13–year–old Rodney Balagot appears too small a boy of his age. His bony sun–tanned arms paled in size to the paddle he gripped with his hands safely guiding the motorized boat carrying his six passengers to dock in a boat landing in Sitio Guicam, this town.

The 12–footer motorized boat came to a halt with a thud as its front end hit the concrete edge of the boat landing. Rodney quickly disembarked and held firmly the boat with his thin but sinewy arms to signal that the passengers can disembark one at a time.

Rodney had just completed his "first trip" for the day.

"Kasagaran makahimu kog 10 ka byahe matag adlaw patabuk didto (usually, I can make 10 trips across the strait)," the 13–year–old told this writer when asked, wiping the sweat on his forehead with the back of his right hand.

He is used to cross with his boat the Olutanga strait that separates Olutanga Island from the mainland of the province, some 760 kilometers southeast of Manila.

The eldest in a brood of five, he was only at the third grade when he stopped going to school three years ago after his father died.

The family's economic condition, he recounted, got even more precarious with "my mother took over as the sole breadwinner."

"Mao nga midesisyon ko motabang pangitag kwarta para magaanan ang amu pamilya (That's why I decided to help earn a living to alleviate the family)," the 13–year–old wryly said.

Rodney, however, is not a rare case in the community.

"Daghan mi diri namasahero nga pareho nakog edad para makakwarta (There are many of my age who ferry passengers to earn money)," he beamed, his eyes lit up.

He looked around and pointed to a group of children about his build and age who were playing cards inside a makeshift hut nearby and blurted "kana pud sila (they, too)."

Statistics don't lie
The Philippines is one of the Asian countries with a significant incidence of child labor, according to a 2009 report from the US Department of Labor.

Records from the National Statistics Office also revealed that there are about 4 million working children in the country today. Of the 4 million, 2.4 million are engaged in hazardous work, which means that they are exposed to chemical, physical and biological hazards. These are the children involved in the worst forms of child labor such as prostitution, domestic work, mining and quarrying, commercial agriculture, deep – sea fishing and pyrotechnics production.

These figures, however, may prove to be conservative.

Imelda Gatinao, provincial director of the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE), admitted that there is no available data on child labor in the province.

"We don't have a formal study and research on child labor in the province to date," the provincial labor chief said.

The only available data in the provincial labor office was the case on the 48 rescued child laborers in the coal mine in 2006.

There is lot of work that needs to be done in the area of child labor, she lamented.

A problem of definition
Experts were of the opinion that the absence of an international agreement on how child labor should be defined contributed to the problem. Countries not only have different minimum age work restrictions, but also have varying regulations based on the type of labor.

They lamented that while "restrictions on child labor exist in most nations, many children do work."

One of the gray areas, experts contended, is that child work is legally allowed but prohibits child labor.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 138 frowns on situation where children are working in harmful conditions but allows children's participation in economic activity that does not interfere with their rights to education.

In the Philippines, for instance, the Labor Code of the Philippines and Republic Act 9231 (An Act Providing for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor and Affording Special Protection for the Working Child, Amending for this purpose R.A. 7610, as amended) and consistent with Department Order No. 65-04 (Rules and Regulations Implementing R.A. 9231 Amending R.A. No. 7610, as amended) requires the issuance of a work permit prior to the employment of children below 15 years of age, as allowed in exceptional situations.

What is prohibited, labor officials explained, is if the youths are required to work more than the mandated 8 hours a day, beyond 40 hours a week as well as working at night. The law states that "no child 15 years of age but below 18 shall be allowed to work between ten o'clock in the evening and six o’clock in the morning of the following day."

Gatinao, however, admitted that the problem in the provinces is of "monitoring work situation involving child labor more than anything else" as in the case of Zamboanga Sibugay.

'Developmental rather than enforcement'
In Barangay Bulacan of nearby town of Payao, the situation is even worse. Children of school age are engaged in small–scale coal mining.

Fourteen–year–old Raul is not stranger to hard and dangerous work conditions. He helped his father working in the open pits where they mine coal to be sold to traders at P75 per sack.

"Dugay na man ko ani nga trabaho (I've been into this work for some time now)," Raul declared with a hint of pride in his voice.

He was only 11 years old when his father asked him to help in mining coal. In various stages of coal mining, he can be seen carrying sacks of coal rocks or washing them in the river or digging with the use of pick or shovel.

In 2006, the provincial labor office rescued some 48 child laborers in Barangays Bulacan and Katipunan – touted as coal–rich area of Payao town – which prompted labor and local government officials to launch anti–child labor advocacy by conducting series of consciousness awareness raising community consultations. Similar advocacy meetings were conducted among the parents through the Parents–Teachers–Community Association (PTCA).

As a result, the Barangay Councils for the Protection of Children were created in the coal–rich areas of the municipality to institutionally address the problem.

But the problem persists.

Gatinao said there are a lot of undocumented cases of child labor in other parts of the province.

Her office has been receiving reports that children were engaged in rubber farming, particularly, in the towns of Ipil and Roseller Lim.

"We are trying to spot check on these areas," she said.

While trying to validate these reports, the provincial labor office is "exerting efforts to organize our partners to help in monitoring the situation." These partners include the different Public Employment Service Office managers, guidance counselors of the different schools, and several church–based organizations.

"Right now, we have established the network of guidance counselors as the avenue to educate our parents on the evils of child labor," Gatinao revealed.

She stressed that "developmental approach is better than enforcement, preventive rather than mere rescue" in addressing the problem.

Dreams simply never die
Child psychologists pointed out that child laborers are not only exposed to the dangers in the workplace but "most importantly they are being robbed of the simple joys of childhood, relegated instead to a life of drudgery."

"But I don't stop dreaming of returning to school one day," thirteen–year–old Rodney emphatically said. Or at least acquire technical skills, he quickly added.

He cited that some of his friends were able to continue schooling "in the EQuALLS project."

Alicia town is one of the three towns in the province that are recipients of the phase two of Education Quality and Access for Learning and Livelihood Skills (EQuALLS 2) implemented by the Save The Children Foundation. The other towns are Malangas and Olutanga.

At least 200 out–of–school youth were trained on different livelihood skills last year from the project. These skills include basic electrical wiring, automotive repair, and mobile phone repair.

Rodney, like many out–of–school children and youth, is pinning their hope "to avail the free technical training one day."

"Who knows?," he impishly smiled.

Then he bid goodbye politely saying "I have to go. My passengers are waiting." He waded to knee-deep water, untie the boat, and boarded unto the boat.

He sailed once more towards the bay across the strait.


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