6 practices to reduce child labor in sugarcane farms

MANILA, Philippines – A decade ago, 8-year-old Harel Ben Conejar started toiling for 8 hours in the sugarcane fields of Iloilo just to help with the family expenses.  

He would wake up at 4 am to cook breakfast for his siblings, then would be off to plant sugarcane, remove weeds, and do some clearing activities at the plantation near his home in Barangay De la Paz in Banate. 

‘Di kami gaanong mahirap, ‘di gaanong mayaman. Pero pagdating sa pag-aaral namin, medyo nahihirapan ang parents ko kasi sabay-sabay kaming nag-aaral. Lima kami tapos kakarampot lang ‘yung kita,” said Conejar. 

(We’re not dirt poor, but we’re not rich. My parents find it difficult to send us to school. We’re 5 siblings and my parents have little earnings.) 

He was a child laborer until he was 17 years old, working in the fields every Saturday and Sunday. Conejar has two elder sisters and two younger brothers. Their father is a construction worker while their mother is a farmer.

He said he personally decided to work in the sugarcane fields to support his schooling and to help his parents. (READ: Study: At least 1 in 5 PH households tolerates child labor

Now 18 years old, Conejar said he initially earned P80 a day, but as the years went by, his earnings increased to P100 then to P150 a day.  

He used the extra income for his school supplies and the allowance of his siblings. If there was money left, Conejar gave it to his mother. 

Working in the fields is difficult according to Conejar, who later developed a skin allergy from pollen and grass. 

Mga gamit namin matatalim kasi ‘yun. Saka isang maling galaw ng kamay mo, masusugatan ka na agad kasi 'pag hahawakan mo ‘yung damo, tapos gagamitin mo ‘yung matatalim na bagay na ‘yun, kaya’t isang maling galaw lang talaga, injuries agad,” he said. 

(Our tools are sharp. One wrong move when you’re cutting grass and you’ll get injuries immediately.) 

Harsh working conditions, health risks, lack of access to education, and hampering their overall development are just some of the hurdles faced by some 5.492 million Filipino child laborers aged 5 to 17.

Of this number from the 2011 Survey on Children, 3.21 million are in hazardous working environments. 

A study by the United States (US) Department of Labor (DOL) also showed 13 goods in the country are produced through child labor, including sugarcane, bananas, coconuts, corn, fashion accessories, fish, gold, hogs, pornography, pyrotechnics, rice, rubber, and tobacco.

This was why World Vision partnered with government agencies and other non-governmental organizations to implement the Livelihoods, Education, Advocacy, and Protection to Reduce Child Labor in Sugarcane Areas (ABK3 Leap) project from 2011 to 2015.

On Wednesday, June 22, World Vision Jason Befus revealed that ABK3 Leap was able to help 54,479 Filipino children, including Conejar. 

CHILDREN'S RIGHTS. Conejar speaks at a child rights advocacy training for ABK3 Leap. Photo by World Vision

CHILDREN'S RIGHTS. Conejar speaks at a child rights advocacy training for ABK3 Leap.

Photo by World Vision

Best practices vs child labor

According to Befus, ABK3 Leap was a project spearheaded by the US DOL, which gave them a budget of $16.5 million (P769.36 million)* to help lift Filipino children and their families from the perils of child labor. 

“Because the Philippines has a bilateral agreement on sugar with the US, they also need to monitor if it’s made with child labor or forced labor. So that prompted that project,” said Befus. 

Through a multi-sectoral approach, ABK3 Leap aimed to reduce the number of child laborers in sugarcane plantations in Batangas, Camarines Sur, Capiz, Iloilo, Leyte, Cebu, Negros Occidental, Negros Oriental, Bukidnon, North Cotabato, and Davao del Sur. 

“The first step is getting the child back to school. But that doesn’t get the child out of labor. So we really work with the parents and the community on awareness and advocacy to say [that] we all need to work on this child labor advocacy together,” he said.

The 4-year program’s best practices include the following:

1. Teach parents about savings and credit so they can use their money to start their own livelihood. A Community Managed Savings and Credit Association (COMSCA) was formed in every barangay, allowing member-families to learn about microfinancing. World Vision later on tapped the labor department’s Integrated Livelihood and Emergency Program to help families find more sustainable sources of income.

2. Provide educational support services to kids. After-school tutorial services, administered by volunteers and even the participating children themselves, can help revive struggling learners’ interest in going to school. This is important at the start of the sugarcane harvest season, when students are more likely to work in the fields after school.

3. Train teachers to become advocates against child labor. Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz earlier said that teachers play a crucial role in identifying who among their students are child laborers. They can also spearhead the creation of child protection policies in schools and in their communities.

EMPOWERED YOUTH. Conejar (center) with some ABK3 Leap participants at the Children and Youth Forum in May 2015. Photo by World Vision

EMPOWERED YOUTH. Conejar (center) with some ABK3 Leap participants at the Children and Youth Forum in May 2015.

Photo by World Vision

4. Get locals involved in the campaign. Groups who plan to implement projects against child labor should get community volunteers because they are familiar with the local terrain. Many of them may be former child laborers, too, so they can provide valuable input.

5. Tap the local government units (LGUs). Befus said LGUs helped them identify which areas to go to and which local government projects could aid their cause. They also helped LGUs craft policies to uphold children’s well-being.

6. Engage with the employers. Sugar industry leaders in Bukidnon, Batangas, Negros Occidental, as well as the Sugar Regulatory Administration, collaborated with AKB3 Leap. This resulted in the creation of Voluntary Codes of Conduct to Eliminate Child Labor in the Sugar Industry.  

A child dreams for self, country

While child labor remains an issue in the Philippines, Condejar said projects like ABK3 Leap are a big help in addressing the problem. (READ: PH ranks high in global report on children's rights)

He said the program taught him his rights and responsibilities as a child, which later encouraged him to gradually stop working in the sugarcane plantation.  

Dahil meron akong rights and responsibilities, dapat pinoproteksyunan kami. Dapat ‘di kami sinasalang sa tubuhan,” he said. 

(Because we have rights and responsibilities, we should be protected. We should not be working in sugarcane farms.)

Conejar is now on his third year as a special education major at the West Visayas State University. He got a scholarship from the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program.

DREAMING BIG. Conejar shares his dream of helping his family and other Filipino children. Photo by Mara Cepeda/Rappler

DREAMING BIG. Conejar shares his dream of helping his family and other Filipino children.

Photo by Mara Cepeda/Rappler

His parents were part of his barangay's COMSCA and were given a pig under ABK3 Leap to kickstart their own hog business.

Una po, pangarap ko sa family, na pagdating ng panahon, may 3 meals a day kami. Tapos 'di na kailangang maghirap pa ni Nanay at ni Tatay sa tubuhan, maghanap ng income para sa family. Tapos magkapag-tapos ng pag-aaral ‘yung mga kapatid ko,” said Conejar. 

(My dream for my family is for the time to come that we will always have 3 meals a day. I also want my mother and father to stop working hard in sugarcane plantations just to earn income for the family. I also want my siblings to finish their schooling.) 

Saka may vision din ako para sa society namin. [Pangarap ko] na ‘yung mga bata ngayon, maproteksyunan, para sa susunod na henerasyon, sila naman ‘yung maging productive citizens na magbibigay ng protection sa next generation,” he added. 

(I also have a vision for our society. My wish is for the children today to be protected so they will become productive citizens who will later protect the next generation.) – Rappler.com

$1 = P46.56

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda writes about politics and women’s rights for Rappler. She covers the House of Representatives and the Office of the Vice President. Got tips? Send her an email at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or shoot her a tweet @maracepeda.