Fr Shay Cullen reports on child labour in the Philippines

 When I arrived in the sugar cane fields, in a swirl of dust churned up by the police vans in Nasugbu, Batangas, two hours drive south of Manila to free the men, women and children from the slave-like conditions I saw a snapshot of colonial slavery as it was two hundred years ago. Then hundreds of thousands of Africans were abducted and enslaved in America to feed the white man's greed for cotton, tobacco and money.

I stood among the towering sugar cane stalks and saw ragged weary workers and children stagger from the fields of cane bewildered and unbelieving they were being rescued. They got no pay, were threatened at gunpoint if they tried to escape and were charged exorbitant prices of the food they were given. They were in debt bondage the day they were brought to the fields.

This modern slavery is common in the democratic Philippines supposedly under the rule of law but in fact under the rule of the elite. The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) anti-trafficking of persons unit was effective and efficient and its existence is testimony that there is a huge trafficking and trade in men, women and children. It has to be opposed and eliminated. However trials and convictions are hard to get.

The US Department of State had the Philippines on a critical level for non compliance with international agreements to curb people trafficking and gross failure to prosecute the people traffickers. Sex trafficking is another scourge that continues unabated too. How much more do powerful elite conceal and deny the widespread existence of child labour. We rescued two young teenagers 15 and 17 year old from the sugar cane fields.

They were already condemned to a life of illiteracy and ignorance. Other little children of one worker and his wife were not in school but part of the slave camp, three and five year old they went about gathering fire wood to cook the meagre portion of rice given by the manager. This is a common reality in many parts of the Philippines where most child workers are working on the land helping their impoverished families seek out a living planting enough food to feed themselves, anything beyond that is a dream.

The Philippine Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE) has reported through Labour Undersecretary Luzviminda Padilla that in every ten Filipino families three have children out working to help feed the family. That means given the Philippine population of 86 million three million families rely on their children's meagre earnings. There are 25 million children and 4 million of them between the ages of 5 and 17 are working and miss out on a schooling. 70% of them are in rural areas working in the fields.

They grow up illiterate, abused, exploited and as a result can never reach an economic stability where their children could go to school and break the cycle of poverty. It is a self perpetuating system of hardship and deprivation of children. Advocates of family planning and population control say the average family of six to eight children is the root of the poverty problem. But is it? The poor will say if we have only two children all will starve, with more we have a better chance to survive most of us can make it and we (parents) when old will live a bit longer. It's a bit like starting a minibus stranded in the desert with a weak battery, two are not enough to give it a push start but six can.

Their survival strategy lies in the strength of numbers, more child workers in the family means more food not less. It seems to work because there are millions of them surviving although utterly impoverished and deprived. Life is all they have even if it is lived in utter want. Their children work by necessity in the fields hauling water, selling in the streets, begging on corners, scavenging in the garbage dumps. More are lured into prostitution or are breaking stones in quarries back street factories or are collecting scrap and junk. They are exposed to pesticides, chemicals, fumes and dangerous gases and lead. They get diseases from insects and parasites from the contaminated food and water, and nearly all suffer from malnutrition. Poverty and social injustice is a form of slavery and a cruel one at that.

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