HAS anyone ever been jailed for child labor in Cebu?

Sun.Star Cebu archives show that at least six cases have been filed under Republic Act (RA) 9231 since 2006, but it is unclear if anyone has ever been convicted.

Children’s Legal Bureau Inc. executive director Joan Saniel was unaware of any convictions.

RA 9231 provides for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor and gives stronger protection to the working child.

Passed in 2003, it amended RA 7610, the “Special Protection of Children against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act.”

But 12 years on, Saniel explains why few, if any, cases of child labor are prosecuted.

Who’s the employer?

In some forms of child labor, like in agriculture or pyrotechnics production, she said, it is not clear who the employer is.

“In these cases, it is usually paid on a contract or ‘pakyaw’ basis. The parents are the ones contracted out to do agricultural work or make the pyrotechnics, and they let their children help so they can catch up with the quotas or so they can earn more. It is not the children who get paid but the parents. The ones contracting can wash their hands because they did not employ the children,” Saniel said.

The 2011 Survey on Children by the National Statistics Office showed that more than half of the children in the country involved in hazardous labor worked in farms.

Asked if the parents could be considered in these cases to be “employing” their children, Saniel said: “The children themselves may also have been the ones who volunteered to help and may not have been aware that these kinds of activities are hazardous and prohibited for children. There is no existing jurisprudence in these cases, so it cannot be ascertained because the term ‘employ’ is not defined under the law.”

In other cases, it may also be the children who employed themselves, she said, as in the cases of children who engage in selling cigarettes, candies, or scavenging.

“It might be their own initiative and not the parents’ or other people’s,” she said.

She acknowledged, though, that there are cases in which it is clear the parents “offered” their children for child labor, a violation of RA 9231. So the parents should be prosecuted. But she also said stakeholders should look beyond prosecution in ending the problem of child labor.

“If the parent is detained, who will take care of the children? Does the government have the capacity to keep these children in their custody?” Saniel asked.

She said the problem of child labor has to be addressed at its roots. “Why is there child labor in the first place? Poverty? Culture? Values? These have to be addressed.”

Cases filed

Engineer Vicente Abordo, acting chief of the Labor Relations and Labor Standards Division of the Department of Labor and Employment (Dole) 7, said cases have been filed under RA 9231.

“Under RA 9231, child labor would be found in construction sites, pabuto (pyrotechnics production), muro-ami, the sugar industry and night clubs,” he said.

But he said there were probably only around eight cases filed since 2008 under Republic Act 9231. All were related to human trafficking, particularly prostitution.

All forms of slavery under RA 9208, the Anti-trafficking in Persons Act of 2003, or practices similar to slavery like the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labor, including recruitment of children for use in armed conflict and for illegal activities are considered among the worst forms of child labor under RA 9231.

“With tie-ups with the International Justice Mission, Philippine National Police and the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and through the use of the decoy approach and marked money, bug-at ang prueba (there is hard evidence),” he said, so arrests can immediately be made.

But in the case of child labor in sugarcane farms, he said, it is hard to build a case because from afar, the planters can already see the Dole personnel or authorities approaching.

“The problem is how to interview the child worker. They’re not cooperative. Most in sugarcane fields will say they just tagged along with their parents, with the parents saying, ‘Di man mabilin sa balay (we can’t leave them at home),’” he said.

In still other cases of child labor, Abordo said, it was hard to interview the children because Dole has no police power to detain them. So another solution is just resorted to.

He recalled a case in 2008 when a child was found to have been made to carry heavy loads in a warehouse in Barangay Inayawan, Cebu City. The employer just paid for the underpayment of the child’s wages, and then the child was sent home.

The Dole 7, however, has filed administrative cases, wherein the penalty was closure of the establishment if during a raid it was proven that children were being prostituted.

Since 2008, some six or seven establishments, almost all of them in Cebu, have been closed due to child labor related to trafficking-related offenses in Central Visayas, Abordo said.

“In the case of child labor in sugarcane farms, we just call their attention. If they comply and stop, then that would now be corrected. We now use the developmental approach, rather than regulatory or confrontational. We call their attention that that’s considered a deficiency,” he said.

New approach

In the past, the approach of the Dole was regulatory.

“But since there was no improvement, we tried a different approach,” Abordo said.

The Dole now issues certificates of compliance to firms that comply with labor laws. The guidelines were issued in August 2013.

The Certificate of Compliance (COC) of General Labor Standards is for companies that give the right wages, overtime pay, 13th month pay, leave benefits, premiums during holidays, and do not employ child labor. The other COC is the Certificate of Compliance on Occupational Safety and Health Standards.

Once a company gets the COC, the Dole will not visit it for two years. There will be a moratorium on “assessment,” the term the agency now uses instead of “inspection.”

To explain the value of the COC, Abordo said: “For example, there are two bakeries. One has a sticker saying this is a Labor Law-Compliant Establishment. Clients will go there because they know that the working conditions there are good and the workers are paid the right salaries. It’s not a sweatshop. The output is better for workers who are satisfied.”

But Remedios Densing, Dole 7’s regional focal person for the agency’s Child Labor Prevention and Elimination Program, admitted that there are many establishments in Cebu that have not yet been covered by the agency’s labor laws compliance officers (LLCO).

“There are 49 LLCOs to cover Cebu. In three years, they should be able to cover all the establishments,” she said. “Each LLCO normally handles 120 firms a year.”

That means all the 49 LLCOs would be able to visit only 17,640 firms in three years.

But according to the Philippine Statistics Authority, in 2012, Cebu province already had 45,185 establishments. Then in 2014, some 13,770 new single proprietorships were created, according to the Department of Trade and Industry.

Under these constraints, ferreting out child labor will continue to be an uphill battle.