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"There is one dream that all Filipinos share: that our children may have a better life than we have had . . . there is one vision that is distinctly Filipino: the vision to make this country, our country, a nation for our children."

Jose W. Diokno


     Before one can even begin to grasp the issue of child labour, its definition should first be examined to acquire a better understanding of the problem.

     In the Philippines, a child is defined as a person below the age of emancipation which is 18 years.1 As soon as a person reaches 18 years of age, he/she is no longer considered a child and becomes automatically entitled to do all acts of civil life, such as contracting marriage or transacting business deals with corresponding legal effects. The term "child" recently acquired a new meaning upon the enactment of R.A. 7610 in 1992, otherwise known as the Child Protection Law. The new law, which devotes an entire chapter on working children, expanded the definition of children to mean "persons below eighteen (18) years of age or those over but are unable to fully take care of themselves or protect themselves from abuse, neglect, cruelty, exploitation or discrimination because of a physical or mental disability or condition."2

     While there is a clear-cut definition of the term "child", the same cannot be said about "child labour" which has been defined and interpreted in many different ways. Child labour, in its general sense, is the participation of children in a wide variety of work situations, on a more or less regular basis, to earn a livelihood for themselves or for others.3 There is a need, however, to distinguish "child labour" from "child work". Not all types of child work are considered child labour. Child labour refers only to economic activities or "those activities which are socially useful and remunerable, requiring manual and/or intellectual effort, which result in the production of goods or performance of services."4 Thus, child labour excludes household chores for one's own family since such is not remunerable. It also excludes mendicancy because such is not a socially useful means of livelihood and does not entail the production of goods or services.5

     In its strict sense, however, child labour does not refer merely to any form of economic activity, as described above, but to a form of economic exploitation damaging to the child. In this light, the International Labour Organization - International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (ILO-IPEC) defines child labour as "work situations where children are compelled to work on a regular basis to earn a living for themselves and their families, and as a result are disadvantaged educationally and socially; where children work in conditions that are exploitative and damaging to their health and to their physical and mental development; where children are separated from their families, often deprived of educational and training opportunities; where children are forced to lead prematurely adult lives."6 This stricter definition throws caution to those child advocates who tend to equate all forms of child labour with exploitation, thereby hiding the real issues, through playing more on emotions rather than on reason.7 The types of child labour which are really exploitative should first be identified instead of lumping all forms of child labour and in the process, lose sight of the forms of child labour that should be fought.8 What is economically exploitative, however, is essentially a cultural decision depicted in the community's daily practices. The State formalizes this decision through the formulation of national standards which become part of its laws.9

     The State, through the Department of Labour and Employment, defines "child labour" as "the illegal employment of children below the age of fifteen (15), where they are not directly under the sole responsibility of their parents or legal guardian, or the latter employs other workers apart from their children, who are not members of their families, or their work endangers their life, safety, health and morals or impairs their normal development including schooling. It also includes the situation of children below the age of eighteen (18) who are employed in hazardous occupations."10 This definition was taken from the existing child labour statutes of the country and clearly pertains only to the work situations of children which under Philippine laws are considered illegal. Accordingly, children above 15 years old but below 18 years of age who are employed in non-hazardous undertakings, and children below 15 years old who are employed in exclusive family undertakings where their safety, health, schooling and normal development are not impaired, are not considered as "child labour" under the law.

     In this paper, unless defined by the law presented, the term "child labour" shall be used in its strict sense as defined by the ILO-IPEC. On the other hand, the terms "child worker" and/or "working children" shall be used in their general sense to refer to all children below 18 years old who are engaged in an economic activity on a more or less regular basis to earn a living for themselves, for their families, or for others, whether or not such children work in the formal (or informal) sector of the economy, and whether or not such children are legally (or illegally) employed.

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     The authorities on minors are one in the appraisal that child labour exists worldwide in astronomical figures. No one knows exactly how many child workers exist in the world today because they are statistically hidden even in the modern sector. Moreover, many governments and employers deny that they exist. Nevertheless, the ILO Bureau of Statistics estimated that there were around 78.5 million economically active children between the ages of 5 and 14 for the year 1990, of whom 70.9 million were between the ages of 10 and 14.11 These figures, however, are grossly underestimated due to the lack of reliable statistical data on child labour at the national level.

     Although child labour can be found in almost every country, it is more prevalent in developing countries, especially in the Asian Region.12 In the Philippines, which is reputed to have the worst poverty incidence among ASEAN countries, the phenomenon of child labour is prevalent and is still spreading. In a 1997 survey, the National Statistics Office (NSO) reveals that 3.7 million children from the ages 5-17 years participate in the country's labour force. These children are predominantly from rural households (67.1 percent), and almost half (49 percent) are between the ages 5-14.13 Since 1989, the incidence of child labour in the country has been steadily increasing at an average rate of 3.8 percent annually over a ten-year period.14 Another calculation places the number of working children between the ages of 5 and 14 years at 5 million, or 19 per cent of the total labour force. Of the 5 million working children in the Philippines between 5 and 14 years of age, about 3.9 million (or 77 per cent) live in rural and 1.1 million (23 percent) in urban areas."15

     Working children may be found in diverse sectors of the Philippine economy. Of the country's working children, 64% are in agriculture, 16.4% are in sales, 9.2% are in production work, and 8.8% are in service trades.16 The major areas in the formal sector17 of the economy where children can be found working are the garments industry, wood-based industry and the food industry. Hiring of apprentices in these industries is common. The rest of the children are in the metal and mining industry.18 In the informal sector of the economy, the magnitude of working children is virtually unknown because many of the establishments are not registered with the proper government regulatory agencies. Nevertheless, studies show that in this sector, children are mostly found in agriculture, in the garments and handicraft sectors working for subcontractors, in the street-vending trade, in illegal trade such as prostitution, and in domestic or bonded labour wherein children are pledged to landlords in payment of debt.19

     Most of the country's working children are exposed to very poor working conditions. Children in agriculture are exposed to heavy loads, chemicals used for fertilizers and pesticides, and to natural elements such as rain, sun and strong winds. Those in fishing suffer from ruptured eardrums and shark attacks. On board the fishing vessels, they have to endure congested, unsanitary conditions and poor food which often lead to illnesses.20

     Factory child workers risk cuts and other injuries from accidents caused by modern machineries and from the lack of protective mechanisms such as gloves and masks. Children in garment factories and in wood industries suffer from back strain, hand cramps, eye strain, headaches and allergies due to dust. Those in the pyrotechnics manufacturing run the additional risk of injury or death caused by the accidental explosion of their products. 21

     Aside from the substandard working conditions suffered by children at work, they face exploitation by their employers in terms of long hours of work, insufficient rest periods and extremely low wages. On the average, children work from 4 to 6 hours a day, earn below P1,000 per month, and are paid in "pakyaw" or piece rate. A significant number do not even get paid since their contribution to the total production efforts of their families are not recognized by employers. It is estimated that 55.7% of the country's working children are unpaid family workers, 38.2% are wage and salary workers, and 7.1% work on their own account.22

     Of the children in the informal sector who work on their own account, those involved in street trades suffer not only from sickness due to exposure to heat, rain, dust and fumes, but also from the risk of vehicular accidents and from frequent molestation and harassment by peers, adult syndicates and even law enforcers. In addition to these, the child scavengers suffer from tetanus infections, while those engaged in prostitution get constantly exposed to sexually transmitted diseases and maltreatment from sadistic customers.23

     Child labour not only entails physical repercussions such as stunted growth and diseases, but also certain psycho-social effects. The work, in which many children are engaged in, distorts their values, leads to loss of dignity and self-confidence, and exposes them to anti-social behavior. Due to long hours of work, their emotional and personal development is retarded and their creative thinking limited. 24

     Child labour also takes its toll on the education of the working children. Out of the 70% of the country's working children who are still able to go to school, half experience problems of high costs of education (28.7%), distance (23.8%), and difficulty in catching up with lessons (22.1%). Working students complain of low grades (41.4%), absenteeism (25.3%), and tardiness (26%). Working students tend to be chronic drop-outs.25

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     Child labour is rooted in poverty and the lack of economic opportunities. It is often a response by the household to the need to satisfy basic requirements. Children with unemployed parents or whose parents do not have social security must work to help in their family's struggle for survival.26 The satisfaction of these children's basic needs in life takes precedence over their other needs such as education and recreation.27

     Children are also impelled to work from an early age because of the centuries-old tradition that the child must work through solidarity with the family group, so as to compensate as much as possible for the economic burden that he/she represents and to share in the maintenance of his/her family, which is usually a very large one.28 In the Philippines, families particularly value helpfulness and responsibility-sharing. Philippine culture especially in rural areas, "considers child work as a phase of socialization where future roles are learned and working to share in the family is seen as a training. [T]he transmission of skills from parents and the evolution of proper attitudes to work are some of the considered social contributions of child labour."29

     Another reason why children work is the failures in the education system. Many parents prefer to send their children out to work rather than to school, either because there is no school within a reasonable distance of the family home, or because they cannot do without the income the working child brings in, or because they cannot meet the costs of sending the child to school, or again because they cannot see what use schooling would be to him.30 Poor schooling has little credibility for many families since it does not promote economic improvement. For so long as developing countries cannot successfully maintain their commitment to a decent quality universal education, increased child participation in the labour market is to be expected.31

     Another major factor in the increase in the number of working children is the demand for child workers. Employers know all too well the advantages of employing children. They represent a docile work force, which could be hired and replaced at a fraction of adult wages. They do not join labour unions and very seldom complain. Above all, employers who hire children gain a competitive advantage in both national and international markets due to the low wages they pay children. 32

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     Despite the government's prohibition on child labour since the 1920s, as embedded in Philippine laws, the problem continues to persist to this day. Child labour is a major economic and societal problem that requires a far more vigorous stance from the government. Because child labour jeopardizes the children's potential to become productive adults, it undermines the government's economic and social development objectives for the country's future.33 More importantly, because the children have but one childhood to live, they cannot afford to wait. For the sake of the country and its children, something has to be done now. Exactly what is to be done and how it is to be done, however, are questions that have been constantly debated upon.

     Admittedly, the perennial problem of child labour is one that cannot be solved overnight. Although poverty is not a worthy excuse for child labour, the fact remains that child labour is rooted in the economic structure of the country itself and in underdevelopment.34 Given the economic realities in many low-income countries, the objective of the abolition of child labour cannot be attained right away. "Child labour is embedded in poverty and it is through sustained increases in standards of living that it will be abolished."35 The ILO, in recognition of this fact, has adopted a "two-pronged approach" to the child labour problem. Its main objective remains the eventual elimination of child labour. However, until this goal can be achieved, commitment is given to improving the conditions under which children work.36

     The government, however, is still confronted with a nagging dilemma: Given its limited resources, the government cannot simply remove all illegally employed children from their current employment or work situations without a ready alternative for their survival. On the other hand, given the other option of providing these children with protective work conditions, the government is faced with another predicament. How can it give protection to these children within their very workplaces when the law prohibits their employment in the first place? In the latter case, the government would be violating its own law. This enigma is one that does not have a definitive solution. Clearly, a careful and deliberate strategizing is required to determine the most viable and effective national action in controlling child labour and in eventually eliminating it.

     Current actions to address the child labour problem evolved from a variety of special projects designed to address specific needs, to a national concerted programmeme and plan of action to combat child labour. It was in the year 1986, right after the people's revolution, when projects for street children and child scavengers began to emerge. In 1988, the government, through the auspices of UNICEF, launched the "Breaking Ground for Community Action on Child Labour" project to identify and assist communities in regions with a high concentration of child labour. Activities under the project focused on provision of basic health and education services to children, on provision of livelihood and entrepreneurial skills to children's parents, and on advocacy work to convince parents and employers to remove children from heavy or dangerous work.37 Significantly, in 1989, the government promulgated the Philippine Plan of Action for children which set specific goals for children in especially difficult circumstances, among which is the banning of children from hazardous occupations/situations by 80% by the year 2000.38 The year 1991 saw the creation of the National Child Labour Program Committee which expanded the original implementors of the project "Breaking Ground..." to involve 14 governmental and non-governmental agencies.39

     In 1994, the Philippine government became a participating country in the ILO-International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (ILO-IPEC) after which an agenda of action for attacking child labour in the Philippines was formulated by representatives of various government agencies, NGOs, employers' and workers' organizations, local government officials and academics from the different regions of the country.40 The resulting agenda which was adopted by the Philippines, set out priority target groups for action, among which are victims of trafficking and bonded labour, children in home-based industries, children in mining and quarrying, and children trapped in prostitution. Priority areas of action for the IPEC programmeme were also identified as follows: direct action on protection, removal and rehabilitation of children from dangerous occupations; awareness-raising; legislation and law enforcement; and capability building.41

     Today, the focus of actions in the country is on the elimination of risk to children rather than on ending their participation in all forms of work. Such approach is needed to accommodate the poverty element in child labour and allow the families flexibility in maintaining their essential survival mechanisms while protecting the children involved.42 Thus, among the emerging strategies now being pursued by the government is the focusing of rescue efforts on the most exploitative forms of child labour or the high-risk children such as the very young (below age 12 or 13), those in hazardous working conditions, or those in bonded labour. For the rest of the working children, however, until alternatives for survival are set in place, heightened efforts should be exerted to assure that they are in jobs that are not harmful to their health and physical and mental development, that they have opportunities for education and recreation, and that they receive the same conditions of employment and protection as ordinary workers in addition to their rights as children. The protection of existing labour legislation, standards, as well as welfare schemes designed to protect workers' well-being, should be extended to them. At the same time, sufficient and effective programmes of rehabilitation are needed to complement the said strategy.

     To realize the foregoing objectives in the area of law enforcement, community groups and local government units have been mobilized to immediately respond to complaints of child abuse and exploitation and to assist the concerned children in obtaining redress for the violation of their rights. Nevertheless, to assure them complete and adequate relief throughout the entire judicial process, the training of significant actors such as labour inspectors, prosecutors, judges, social workers and NGOs for a better comprehension of the laws and legal procedures on children, and for a deeper sensitization on children's rights still need to be intensified.

     The immediate measures required for the protection of child workers, as suggested above, would be ineffective unless accompanied by schemes to address the root causes of child labour. Thus, aside from existing social welfare services to needy families, income generating or community livelihood projects must be strengthened to increase the families' earning power. In like manner, educational programmes that are free, relevant to the needs of the child workers and flexible enough to allow them enough time to carry on traditional but non-hazardous work should be made accessible to them.43

     As a preventive approach to the problem of child labour, activities aimed to educate the general public, policy-makers, employers, workers, families, and children themselves on the evils of child labour and to improve their understanding of the problem should, likewise, be intensified.

     In the area of legislation, the possibility of ratifying international conventions or of amending existing child labour laws to make them conform to international standards, as well as of enacting new laws which are realistic and enforceable, is sincerely being considered by the government. The formulation of simplified rules and regulations to guide law enforcers and the general public in the correct interpretation and proper implementation of existing laws should, however, be fasttracked.

     Although a host of other strategies and activities to combat child labour are already being effected in the country, they are evidently inadequate when weighed against the magnitude of the problem. Definitely, an enormous task still lies ahead for those willing to stake their time and efforts to save the country's children. The following chapters aim to assist all concerned government agencies, non-governmental organizations and other groups or individuals in their efforts to protect and promote the rights of child workers, by empowering them with knowledge on the laws and legal procedures involved in this complex issue of child labour.

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