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Feature story from the Philippines: Making future harvests without child labour

Seventy per cent of the world’s working children are in agriculture. From tending cattle to harvesting crops, handling dangerous machinery and spraying pesticides, over 132 million children aged 5 to 14 help produce the food we eat and the clothes we wear. Minette Rimando who works for the ILO’s Subregional Office in Manila reports from the Philippines.

Article | 11 June 2007

MANILA, Philippines (ILO Online) – Rudy is the fifth in a family of seven children. At 15, he dropped out of high school to help his father on the farm. His two elder brothers had died in a tragic accident shortly before.

Rudy felt he was duty-bound to help provide for his younger siblings. “I was afraid that my younger brother and sister would also have to quit school and work because we didn’t have enough money”, says Rudy.

According to a survey conducted in 2001, more than 60 per cent of working children aged 5 to 17 work on farms in the country. An estimated five million families depend on seasonal contract work on sugarcane plantations, which causes many children to drop out of school.

In Western Visayas, the country’s leading sugar producing region, 88.3 per cent of families with working children earn below P10,000 (US $ 200) a month – every hand, therefore, is needed to improve the family income.

Working for long hours under the scorching heat of the sun, children risk hurting themselves with the ‘spading’, the local name for the large heavy machete used in cutting sugarcane. They are also exposed to chemicals and fertilizer which they handle with their bare hands.

In 2006, the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) partnered with the Sugar Industry Foundation, Inc. (SIFI) to address child labour in Western Visayas. SIFI is a Philippine foundation where sugar farmers, sugar mill owners and representatives of farm labourers come together to address the concerns of sugar workers.

Under the IPEC-SIFI program, working children were given technical skills training and scholarships for further schooling while over 100 family members working on sugarcane farms participated in seminars to enhance their business skills.

Rudy joined over 80 others who were given skills training. After a 75-day, on-the-job training in a company that leases heavy equipment for construction work, Rudy was hired by the same company as a mechanic assistant. As Rudy is still under age 18, tasks and conditions are still to be monitored since he is not to do dangerous work according to ILO standards on child labour.

Globally, agriculture among three most dangerous sectors

Agriculture is a sector where many children are effectively denied education which blights their future chances of escaping from the cycle of poverty by finding better jobs or becoming self-employed.

“The rural sector is often characterized by lack of schools, schools of variable quality, problems of retaining teachers in remote rural areas, lack of accessible education for children, poor/variable rates of rural school attendance, and lower standards of educational performance and achievement. Children may also have to walk long distances to and from school. Even where children are in education, school holidays are often built around the sowing and harvesting seasons”, explains Michele Jankanish, Director of ILO-IPEC.

Agriculture is also one of the three most dangerous sectors in which to work at any age, along with construction and mining. Whether child labourers work on their parents' farms, are hired to work on the farms or plantations of others, or accompany their migrant farm worker parents, the hazards and levels of risk they face can be worse than those for adult workers.

“Because children’s bodies and minds are still growing and developing, exposure to workplace hazards can be more devastating and long lasting for them, resulting in lifelong disabilities. Therefore the line between what is acceptable work and what is not is easily crossed. This problem is not restricted to developing countries but occurs in industrialized countries as well”, says Jankanish.

She emphasizes, however, that not all work that children undertake in agriculture is bad for them or would qualify as work to be eliminated under the ILO Minimum Age Convention No. 138 or the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention No. 182.

“Age-appropriate tasks that are of lower risk and do not interfere with a child’s schooling and leisure time are not at issue here. Indeed, many types of work experience for children can be positive, providing them with practical and social skills for work as adults”, she says.

On the other hand, working children represent a plentiful source of cheap labour, often at an early age. Most statistical surveys only cover child workers aged 10 and above, but children under 10 are estimated to account for 20 per cent of child labour in rural areas.

Brighter prospects of going back to school

Not all of them are as lucky as Rudy’s younger brother and sister. Today, Rudy is no longer afraid that his two siblings may quit school to work in the sugarcane fields.

“I am happy that I can give money to my parents to send my younger brother and sister to school,” he says. For the ILO, agriculture remains a priority sector for the elimination of child labour.

“For agricultural and rural development to be sustainable, it cannot continue to be based on the exploitation of children in child labour. Unless a concerted effort is put in place to reducing agricultural child labour, it will be impossible to achieve the ILO goal of elimination of all worst forms of child labour by 2016”, concludes Jankanish.