Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Child Labor

DAVAO--Police swooped down on a private wharf in Tibungco, Davao City earlier this week. The raid netted 14 minors, some as young as twelve years, who worked in the pier as dockhands. What prompted this action was the death of a boy, run over and crushed by a forklift while he was sleeping.

Local authorities claim triumph in this "rescue." Meanwhile the dockyard operator simply said that no, they did not employ the children, they were only delivering food to their parents in the wharf. For all that, this there is a noticeable lack of public furor. Tragic, yes, but in this country all too routine.

Children, we know instinctively, should be at school or at play, under the guidance and protectiont of their parents. They should not be involved in hard and dangerous work which, in a pier with heavy machinery, clearly was what they were employed in. But this is yet another difficult reality in our midst: child labor in the Philippines is all too real.

There's plenty of blame to go around: to the shipping company, for employing underage workers, or at the very least, permitting them to run loose in the docks; to the city government, for overlooking such a dangerous practice until after the fact; to the parents, for their lack of oversight over their children; maybe even the boys themselves for neglecting school in favor of the wharf. Yet what looms large is the economic factor, under the circumstances too tempting to resist.

Working between 8PM and 2AM, the wharf boys would unload truckloads of bananas. For this they earn what a local paper described as a "measly" P200 per night. But to someone of their economic standing, P200 is a princely sum, certainly worth taking whatever the risk involved. Upong questioning, one of the boys spun out a typical sob story: with no money for school and a sick mother, what choice then but to work? The triteness takes the edge off the tragedy -- how many times have we heard this tale? -- but that belies the hard reality that he and other like him must live through, whatever the reasons.

Dumaguete would do well to learn from this incident and take preventive steps to ensure that a similar occurence does not take place in the city. While we cannot treat the root cause -- poverty -- immediately, we can address some of the symptoms.

First, we must acknowledge that child labor does exist in our surroundings. Too often, it's become invisible both because it's so unpleasant and because it's so common. Look around: it could be that boy pedalling a bike with a sidecar full of vegetables; or it could be someone picking scraps for the junkyard. These children and their families must be identified.

Second, we must also acknowledge that, despite our best efforts, these children will continue to work out of financial necessity. But we can at least take steps to make sure that their working conditions are safe and that they still have time to be children. There have to be alternative livelihood or skills programs that take these children out of a potentially dangerous element and into better and safer environment.

Third, local government has to be actively involved in education, especially in the primary levels. It's not sufficient to allocate funds for scholarships and improvement of public school facilities. Local government must look into the quality of education, reduce truancy, and determine specifically why children are unable to go to school. Give the children no reason not to go to school.

As of this writing, the boys have been remanded back to their guardians. Along with that are assurances of full scholarships and livelihood programs for their parents. For one boy though, it's already too late.

Let's make sure that it's not too late for any of the children in Dumaguete.