IT IS Saturday. Sienna (not her real name), 14, is chopping sugarcane stalks. She began working with her mother in this sugarcane farm in Barangay Caputatan Norte, Medellin town, Cebu a year ago.

The third year high school student works from 7 to 11 a.m., taking care to avoid getting bitten by rats, snakes and poisonous spiders, and cutting herself with her scythe.

The daily rate at the farm is P80, but only the adults get paid, her mother said.

If the pakyaw system is used, where pay is based on work completed, the worker gets P45 for every 1,000 pieces of sugarcane stalks he can chop in preparation for planting.

Working alone, her mother can chop only 3,000 pieces a day. This helps to explain why farmers who need more income bring their children to the farms to help out.

Farm kids

According to the 2011 Survey on Children by the National Statistics Office, the bulk or 55 percent of children in hazardous labor in the Philippines worked in farms.

Work in sugarcane plantations is one of the worst forms of child labor, along with child domestic work, child prostitution, deep-sea fishing, fireworks production, and mining and quarrying.

To help the children, the non-government organization (NGO) World Vision Development Foundation Inc. is implementing in Cebu the “Pag-Aaral ng Bata para sa Kinabukasan: Livelihoods, Education, Advocacy and Protection to Reduce Child Labor in Sugarcane Areas” (ABK3 Leap) project.

Funded by the US Department of Labor, the project runs from October 2011 to September 2016, said Dorothy Mae Albiento, advocacy and communications specialist of ABK3 Leap, World Vision.

In Cebu, ABK3 will help 2,106 children from 908 households in six barangays, of whom 1,559 are engaged in child labor while 547 are at risk of being drawn into it.

To benefit are children in 476 households in barangays Anonang Sur, Cayang and Taytayan in Bogo City; and in 432 households in Caputatan Norte, Caputatan Sur and Dalingding Sur in Medellin. 

As young as five

The children ABK3 is assisting are from five to 17 years old. In farms, the five-year-olds usually do the weeding, Albiento said.

“Normally, children work in the farms on weekends and holidays,” Albiento said. “But sometimes, during the peak season, like cultivation, planting and harvest, they study only three days a week. Beginning Thursday, they are no longer in school.”

Agnes Yaun, barangay captain of Caputatan Norte, Medellin’s biggest area for sugarcane, said children under 10 are usually brought to the farms by parents who say they have no one to leave them with at home.

In the farm, they are assigned to line up seedlings on the soil. But even doing just that is hazardous, Yaun said, since mud is sharp once the tractor has been through it.

Older child workers told Sun.Star Cebu that without protective gear, wounds from weeding and chopping sugarcane, and scratches from brushing against the sharp sugarcane leaves were common.

The children also complained of chemical fertilizers that sting and of the intense heat of the sun. One of them said the drinking water supplied to them at work was never enough.

Education

To reduce child labor, World Vision puts the children in school to break the cycle of poverty in their families.

ABK3 Leap helps children enrolled in formal education, non-formal education (Alternative Learning System or ALS) and technical-vocational training. It also provides supplemental learning materials, like books, for schools’ learning resource centers (LRC).

Child beneficiaries get school supplies and school uniforms.

“This is to relieve parents of some of the financial burdens of sending their children to school, thereby encouraging enrollment in school and increasing retention,” Albiento said.

Yet other challenges remain.

“All the six barangays do not have high schools, so children, especially those from the farther sitios of the barangay, have to walk around 30 minutes to one hour to get to the nearest high school in the area,” Albiento said. The farthest is a two-hour walk.

Caputatan Norte is four kilometers from Medellin proper, where the Medellin National High School and Cebu Normal University (CNU) are, Yaun said, explaining the situation in her village. A habal-habal (modified motorcycle) ride would cost students P20 one way.

Vocational

For 15-17-year-olds eligible for TVET (technical-vocational education and training) courses, ABK3 covers part of their tuition or miscellaneous expenses, said Jun Mina, ABK3 Leap monitoring and evaluation associate.

The youths usually train in housekeeping, and food and beverage services with the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda) and the Department of Labor and Employment (Dole).

“When they pass the Tesda assessment for NC (National Certificate) II, they are even qualified to go abroad,” Albiento said.

So the children have no excuse not to attend the training, Medellin Mayor Ricardo Ramirez III provides a vehicle to pick up the TVET scholars daily, said Emelita Cala, provincial engagement officer of World Vision assigned in Cebu.

Some TVET graduates now work in pension houses in Cebu City and in restaurants in Bogo and Medellin. Farm worker Vanessa (last name withheld) revealed that one of her seven children, a TVET-assisted scholar, now works in Profood International Corp. in Mandaue City, cooking mangoes.

Teacher training

To strengthen education services, ABK3 trains teachers in creative storytelling, sets up LRCs in the barangays, and holds catch-up sessions for struggling learners.

The catch-up sessions are done by the top-performing students who act as “little teachers” to the struggling learners.

Caputatan Norte has seven “little teachers.” Aged 15 to 17, and studying in high school or college, these teenagers are the officers of the Barangay Children’s Association, of which the 502 children in the ABK3 project in the village are members.

Cala said the “little teachers” fan out to the sitios on weekends for the catch-up sessions, teaching children English and math after giving them a lecture on child labor.

One of the “little teachers” is on track to becoming a full-time teacher, as she is now taking up Bachelor of Elementary Education.

To ensure a safe learning environment, ABK3 also builds and repairs classrooms, and water and sanitation facilities. It also trained teachers and principals on raising awareness on child rights and child labor.

Community watch

With family and community support for education vital, ABK3 also organizes and strengthens community structures like Community Watch Groups (CWG) and Barangay Councils for the Protection of Children (BCPC).

Community watch groups composed of volunteer parents and barangay officials conduct quarterly monitoring to help ensure that the ABK3 aims are met.

“If the CWGs see children working, they make home visits to remind parents not to let their children work. Some kids work to provide for school supplies, so we give them school supplies,” Albiento said.

“In Bogo and Medellin, there are 57 CWG volunteers. In the six barangays, the BCPCs are functional. They have plans, which are endorsed to the Barangay Council for funding,” said Jay Renton, monitoring and evaluation officer for ABK3 Leap, World Vision.

Barangay councils

Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) 7 Regional Director Ananias Villacorta said all the 1,066 barangays in Cebu Province have organized their BCPCs. But only 55 BCPCs “have been assessed as ideal,” meaning they have met the requirements for all the indicators of a functional Local Council for the Protection of Children (LCPC).

A fully functioning LCPC is one that holds meetings regularly, supported by minutes of the meetings; has policies and plans on child survival, development, protection and participation, and funding for such programs in the annual budget; and accomplished projects and activities promoting children’s rights and welfare as evidenced by annual reports on these. 

The Child and Youth Welfare Code of 1974 mandated the creation of BCPCs to participate in drawing and implementing plans for the promotion of child and youth welfare. Then the Juvenile Justice and Welfare Act of 2006 required local government units (LGU) to allocate one percent of their Internal Revenue Allotment for the strengthening and implementation of the BCPC’s programs and activities.

Some 737 barangays have allocated the required one percent, while 59 have allocated more than one percent, said Villacorta.

Livelihood

To eliminate the need for child labor, ABK3 helps parents and children aged 15 to 17 with livelihood, providing training and input support (like seeds and tools) for agricultural and non-agricultural ventures.

Parents were trained in natural farming, like backyard gardening and livestock raising. The town now has hog raising and rice retailing projects.

Cala said backyard gardens provide a source of food for families during the lean months when their farm labor is not required and only odd jobs tide them over.

Demonstration gardens that can be used as communal farms were also put up. There are 19 in Medellin, some in idle private lands that World Vision just “borrowed,” Mina said.

For skills training and job referrals, ABK3 hooks up with government agencies like the Dole and Department of Agriculture (DA). The DA has trained the town’s families in the processing of meats like tocino and chorizo.

The idea is to give families alternatives to sugarcane farming because the activities related to this type of farming make children vulnerable to child labor.

“With sugarcane, after cultivation, you wait two to three months for the harvest. This is tiempo muerto (the dead season). June to August, you do weeding only.

Harvest season is September to February, while March is land preparation,” Renton said.

“During tiempo muerto, children are at risk of other forms of child labor, like domestic labor in the house. They are also at risk of trafficking,” Mina said.

Savings

So families have the right mindset on finances, ABK3 encourages savings generation through Community Managed Savings and Credit Associations (Comsca).

“By pooling their savings together, Comsca encourages parents to save,” Albiento said.

Comsca has credit and social protection components funded not just by the savings of the members but also by penalties they agree to charge each other for, say, missing Comsca meetings, arriving late or even being talkative at the meetings, Renton said.

Members can take out loans for school expenses, to open a business or to buy a piglet. During emergencies, members can get up to P500 each from the social fund, depending on their agreement. There is a “share-out” or profit sharing at yearend.

The Comsca can be accredited with the Dole for endorsement to access funds.

One unexpected benefit: “Nabawasan ang tong-its (betting on card games was reduced) when they busied themselves with Comsca,” Mina said.

The money was diverted to the Comsca, Cala said. Today, despite some farmers earning just the daily wage of P80, each member contributes P100 every Sunday to the Comsca.

“After typhoon Yolanda, they had nowhere to get money, so they had a ‘share-out.’ After that, everyone wanted to be a member of Comsca” because they realized they could also borrow money through the group, she said.

“Even five-year-olds save money in Comsca,” Albiento said. The youth Comsca has no credit component, but it also has a “share-out.”

Low earnings

On the low earnings of sugar laborers, Jose Mari Miranda, president of the Bogo-Medellin Sugarcane Planters Association, said farmers could earn more under the pakyaw system, with industrious ones able to earn nearly P500 a day, and the less so earning P160-190 a day.

“The rate is P170/ton of sugarcane of output. Based on studies, one worker can have output of 1.75 tons a day, so that’s P170/ton x 1.75 tons = P297.50. Divided by eight hours, that’s P37.18/hour. But actually, they work only five hours. So it’s P297.50/five hours = P59.50/hour. If they work eight hours, they would get P476 (P59.50 x eight hours).

“Cutting takes only 1-1/2 hour. Loading is only one hour. So let’s say they finish everything in 3-1/2 hours, work is finished by 11 a.m. Then mag-inom sila (they go drinking) in the afternoon,” he told Sun.Star Cebu.

Policy support

To sustain the efforts to eliminate child labor, World Vision gives stakeholders capacity and policy support to address the issues of child labor and poverty in sugarcane.

Renton said World Vision increases families’ access to social protection first by informing them of the government programs available such as at the Philippine Health Insurance Corp., the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), and Dole.

Awareness raising on child labor in sugarcane is also done through orientations and community assemblies.

Then community structures like the LCPCs at the municipal and barangay levels, and LGUs are strengthened with the view to creating ordinances on child labor, children’s codes, and resolutions that prohibit hazardous child labor in sugarcane farms and allocating funds for programs for children’s welfare.

In March, World Vision held an orientation for Medellin’s Municipal Council for the Protection of Children, and a child labor policy “writeshop” and child monitoring system workshop. Medellin has since passed an ordinance outlawing child labor. It is now drafting its Children’s Code.

First

Barangay Caputatan Norte was ahead of the town, though, in passing an ordinance to prohibit child labor, having done so in 2014.

At the helm was Yaun, whom the DILG named the most outstanding barangay captain of Central Visayas towns in 2013.

She credits her win in part to her barangay’s partnerships with NGOs for livelihood projects, and with CNU for outreach projects to help out-of-school youths.

Yaun also showed Sun.Star Cebu the Barangay Household Information System that contains information on the number of people in each sitio, the jobs they have, the number of children they have and their children’s jobs.

She said the number of working children in the village had dropped to 20 percent from 80-90 percent in 2007.

Asked how she would replace the lost income of the children withdrawn from child labor, she said that through the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, the DSWD had given the barangay lessons in cooking, sewing and soap making.

Since adults work in the farms only in the mornings, they now spend their afternoons making macramé belts and bags, rugs, peanuts, pastillas, T-shirts, jogging pants, sling bags, backpacks and a cleaning liquid they can sell in the town.

Denial

The scale of child labor in sugarcane farms remains unclear because in the informal sector, usually only the adults are put in the payroll. There may also be some denial by landowners that child labor exists at that scale.

The Bogo-Medellin Sugarcane Planters Association has 400-450 members (landowners) from Bogo, Medellin and other parts of Cebu’s sugar milling district like Tabogon, San Remigio, Daanbantayan and Tuburan. Most have farm sizes of one to 20 hectares, said Miranda.

Of child labor in these areas, he said: “Wa man kaayo na sa amo. (We don’t have much of that.) Mostly, we have contract workers. I don’t accept children. If the parents plant, we ask them to leave their children outside because the parents will be distracted from their work.”

He added: “The children today don’t want to be exposed to the sun. If there are child workers, maybe those are in plots that are one to two hectares, those that are family affairs.”

But barangay captain Yaun said that, at least in her barangay, all the sugar farmers worked in haciendas and didn’t own farms, and some even squatted or lived in the haciendas where they worked.

Medellin Mayor Ramirez was more realistic about child workers in sugarcane in his town: “I doubt if they reach 200.”

He said the children he had seen worked on Saturdays, or during the summer and holidays only, and that they did just light tasks, like weeding.

Para nako, maka-ayo man sad na. Sa bukid, disiplinado man. Their free time is devoted to helping the family. In the barangays with no farms, kargado naa didto ang mga bugoy.” (I think that’s good for the children also. In the mountain barangays, the children are more disciplined. In the villages with no farms, that’s where the misfits are.)

Results

Cala said that of the ABK3-assisted working children in Bogo City, only 15 percent remain engaged in hazardous labor today. In Medellin, the rate is 39 percent. “The project target is 15 percent, so in Bogo, we will just try to maintain that,” she said.

On the bigger reduction of child labor in Bogo, she said, “There are zero children now in Anonang Sur because the owner of the farm is the Barangay Captain, George Tabaco.”

“By the end of the project, ABK3 Leap (which covers 11 provinces) will directly support 54,000 children at risk of or working in sugarcane, and the project’s livelihood, capacity building and policy work will reduce additional children working,” said Albiento.

When World Vision packs up, the local government will have to pick up the slack.

Addressing attendees of the World Vision-sponsored workshop for municipal officials in March, it seems Mayor Ramirez was already priming them for the task: “Children should not be out in the fields, especially during school days. They should be in school, so they can have a good education, so they can get gainful employment. An educated man can go a long way.”