This week, ahead of the commemoration this year of World Day Against Child Labor on June 12, Pope Francis described child labor as a “scourge.”
The description is appropriate, as child labor truly serves to hinder the integral development of many children and young people who, he said, “are forced into jobs that are inappropriate for their age to help their families in conditions of extreme poverty.”
Often, he pointed out, “these are forms of slavery and imprisonment, resulting in physical and psychological suffering.”
The pontiff urged the international community to protect the boys and girls who are “deprived of their childhood” as they are forced into labor at a very young age.
“I appeal to the institutions to make every effort to protect minors,” he reasoned, by filling the economic and social gaps that make child labor a widespread phenomenon especially in the developing countries.
What he said is relevant for the world at large, but more so for developing countries like the Philippines, which has not been spared from this scourge.
In the Philippines, there are 2.1 million child laborers age 5-17 years old based on the 2011 Survey on Children of the Philippine Statistics Authority.
About 95 percent of them are in hazardous work. Sixty-nine percent of these are age 15-17 years old, beyond the minimum allowable age for work but still exposed to hazardous work.
An International Labor Organization report that same year said as many as 3 million children in the Philippines worked in environments that are considered hazardous, and an additional 2.5 million more toiled in slightly better but still substandard conditions.
Hazardous work involving children is most prevalent in Central Luzon, Bicol, Northern Mindanao and Western Visayas regions. Children as young as 6 have been working in sugarcane fields. Agriculture remains the sector where most child laborers can be found.
One disturbing development is that as many as 18,000 children are involved in regional gold mining operations across the country. The country ranks 18th in terms of global gold production. As the demand for gold grows along with its price, the number of children working in gold mines also grows.
Gold production in the Philippines is highly dangerous. Young boys and teenagers are often forced to descend into watery pits in a process known as compression mining. With only a tube to allow them to breathe underwater, they fill bags with ore before returning to the surface.
Aside from the obvious physical dangers of this type of work, children and teenagers face other risks when working in the mining industry, such as exposure to mercury, which is used to leach gold from rock.
Many children are often forced to work long hours with few breaks, which exacts a heavy toll on their physical development. Others are abused by their employers, both physically and psychologically. Although some companies make use of both boys and girls in their operations, boys remain at higher risk of becoming child laborers; almost 67 percent of child workers in the Philippines are boys.
Poverty is the root cause of child labor. When families struggle to make ends meet, inevitably parents decide to send children to work.
While the ideal is to keep children in school and away from child labor, the government needs to find decent and productive work for parents and ensure basic social protection for families.
The Philippines has ratified various international conventions on the elimination of child labor. But implementing these agreements is often easier said than done.
I believe there should be a convergence of efforts by the government, the private sector, non-government organizations and international development humanitarian institutions towards the prevention, protection and removal from hazardous and exploitative work of child labor victims.
“Children are the future of the human family: it is up to all of us to foster their growth, health and serenity,” Pope Francis concluded his recent remarks. He is correct.
It is a moral imperative to eliminate child labor if we really want to secure a better future for the nation and our people. It is a scourge that can be prevented, not something that we should accept even for developing countries like ours where poverty levels remain unacceptably high.
Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.