The Shame of a Nation

July 7, 2003 at 2:41 pm | Posted in Writings | Leave a comment

We do not necessarily know them by names, but we sometimes see them as the subject of moving documentaries or late-night TV magazine shows.

They could be young boys in the docks carrying sacks of cement on their head, or diving for pearls with wooden planks on their feet. She could be a young girl holding hands with an old tourist or holding a metal hook scavenging for garbage. More likely, it could be the young girl washing the dishes or watching the baby in your house as you read this.

Child laborers who often toil under intolerable conditions just to augment their or their families� needs are denied the right to a decent life. Said Roland Pacis of the Visayan Forum, an NGO that works for the welfare of child laborers, the situation is truly alarming. One third or 22.4 million Filipinos are children. Based on the National Statistics Office Survey in 1995, 3.6 million Filipino children ages five to 17 work. Which means that one out of every six children is working.

Anna�s tragic story pictures a shameful reality. Working as a househelp, her cruel employers tricked her into drinking liquid souza, an acid used for unclogging kitchen drains. Anna�s digestive tract was burned and she had to be fed through a tube in her stomach. Suffering from massive internal bleeding, she couldn�t even speak. After months of surgery, she ultimately filed a case of attempted homicide against her employer. A day later she succumbed to her injuries and died.

A child laborer defined partly by statistics is depicted as young as five or six, probably the eldest son and working on a farm. Recently however, this picture has been changing since more girls from the rural areas are joining the labor force and ending up as household helps in urban areas. The situation is aggravated if they were acquired to pay off their parents� debt. This is tantamount to a form of child slavery. Nowadays, more children in the urban poor areas are combining school with work just to subsidize the increasing cost of education.

For example, Boboy was 15 when his uncle enlisted his help in a construction near their home. �Naghahalo po ako ng semento at saka nagi-ipon ng mga kalat,� Boy said. His meager income went to his parents. Later, Boboy stopped schooling.

Jojo for his part worked at the Paco market for sometime. �Nagtulak ako ng kariton, para maghatid ng mga pinamalengke ng mga customer,� he recalls with a faint smile. Unlike B., his parents did not know he was working. �Tatakas po ako kapag madaling araw, para pumunta na sa palengke,� he confides, the sadness showing in his eyes.

The money he earned was supposed to help him in his studies. �Maliit lang ang kinikita, mga P80, tapos may mangingikil pa sa yo,� Jojo discloses, pinpointing to the toughies that work there as well. He could not earn enough to support himself either.

Girlie meanwhile, was lured by a pimp posing as a friend into the flesh trade. She was brought to a club in Quezon City but fortunately, NGO workers were able to find her and bring her to a safe place.

Now these kids are all part of a youth group that focuses on making other people aware of children�s rights, mainly by sharing their own experiences. Yet there are still thousands who are not as lucky.

Actually, the law does not lack in looking after the welfare of children like Girlie, Jojo and Boy. The Labor Code provides that 15 is the minimum age allowed for employment in non-hazardous work, and 18 as the minimum age for hazardous work. Republic Act 7610 delineates the mechanisms for child protection and the corresponding penalties for violating the age requirement in employment. But it contains a provision allowing the employment of children below 15 years. �(Tapos) ang problema (pa) yung implementation,� says Pacis.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) specifies in Article 32 that a child is �to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child�s health or physical, mental, spiritual, or social development.�

The CRC encourages governments around the world to eliminate child labor. Approved ten years ago on November 20 by the UN General Assembly, the Convention defines the rights that should be given to every child.

Fortunately the struggle to make grown-ups appreciate these rights is finding a very loud voice. Next year, a follow-up to the Global March will be held in Manila in January. Working children, NGO workers and children advocates from other countries will be attending.

Pacis recounts the Global March which kicked off in Manila in 1997 and travelled around the world in time for a meeting of bureaucrats in Geneva a year later. The March calls for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor and the long-term commitment of addressing poverty and inequality, which are the main perpetrators of child labor.

Surely, Jojo, Girlie and Boy will attend that March, shouting for their rights, chanting a simple but piquant slogan �Ang bata ay may karapatan, ang gobyerno ay may katungkulan.�

(a short sweet piece I wrote for the AIJC back in Nov. 2002)


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