THE LITTLE BOY knocked on the window of the café last night, holding up a plastic basket. Scrunching his lips at it, he indicated with raised eyebrows and wide open eyes that it was in our best interest to check out his wares.
He was a cute fellow, and my husband began haggling with him through the glass. With gestures and exaggerated mouthings, the boy explained that he was selling bicho for P8 a piece and that he had settled on our purchasing a few. He assured us we could finish our coffee first; he’d wait. True to his word, he sat on the other side of the pane, patiently singing and swinging his legs. Of course, we rushed our drinks; the pressure was too great.
I thought we should buy some and give them back to him to eat, but my husband (who knows these things) said the boy would not like that. If he was enterprising enough to work and not beg, he most likely had the self-respect not to accept charity.
Outside the café, Jorem (that was his name), manfully withstood my husband’s ribbing and maintained that P8 was cheap for the quality bicho he offered. “E kung bigyan na lang kita ng pera (What if I just give you some money?),” my husband asked. Jorem grimaced and said, “Bili na lang kayo. (I’d rather you buy some.)“ My husband gave me a look that said, “you see?”
We ordered three and Jorem instantly said, “P24 po,” while wrapping them up. I, who now have to triple check my arithmetic before going public with it, was impressed.
I asked how old he was. “Seven,” he said. No wonder he was so small. But smart. I asked where he studied, hoping that he was at least in school. “Science,” he answered, indicating the city Science Elementary and High School where the bright kids went. It figured.
The little man handed the package to my husband, whom he clearly considered his equal. Out of curiosity, we asked, “Ba’t ka nagtitinda? (Why are you out here selling?)“ “Pambaon (Lunch money),” was the laconic reply.
He said he lived nearby, so before we left, we counseled him to go home soon as it was getting late. He shook his head and gave us an affronted look, protesting, “Marami pa ‘to! (I’ve got a lot more to sell!)” We left him to it and walked away with a smile but much concern for the 7-year old boy who was out alone selling bicho on a Friday night.
The previous week, we met a 12-year old boy as we exited a fastfood joint on Marcos Highway. He was neatly dressed and looked freshly bathed. He seemed to have just come from home and started his “night shift” after school and spending some time with his family.
He was selling potholders, a bundle of three for P25. His mother made them to augment their family income. I bought two bundles and noticed, sadly, that he had a whole pile left. He was a good-looking boy but small for his age. Frankly, it hurt to see him out alone on the highway at nearly midnight. I asked him where his parents where. “Nagbebenta din po (They are out selling too),” he said. It was late, we were tired and had a long drive home. We left him then, with a blessing and an admonition to be careful.
According to the NSO’s 2011 Survey on Children: Child labor in the Philippines, of 29 million Filipino children aged 5-17 years old, roughly 5.5 million were working – almost 3 million, in hazardous labor. While the government has taken serious steps to reduce this figure, many cases of child labor remain unreported.
The Philippines has ratified all the key international conventions on child labor and has strengthened agencies involved in law enforcement, but child protection at the grassroots level remains weak because local councils lack the resources to fully address the issues. Awareness of what exactly constitutes child labor remains low among the poorest of the poor, and many of these families employ their children, wittingly or unwittingly putting them at risk, because of the sheer need to get by.
“We have to get to the root of child labor which is linked with poverty and lack of decent and productive work. While we strive to keep children in school and away from child labor, we need to ensure decent and productive work for parents and basic social protection for families,” said Director Lawrence Jeff Johnson of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Country Office for the Philippines.
This is indeed the crux of the matter. Every day, there are children who remove their school uniforms and don their work gear to help their parents make life a bit better. They scrounge around for recyclable junk or sell food or homemade items from afternoon to night. They hardly have time for leisure or play or any form of recreation common to children. They are too busy working.
While there is a strong campaign against the worst forms of child labor, those who make up this relatively “harmless” sales force slip through the cracks. The records show that the government has been trying to seal those cracks, but there are too many for it to handle.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child holds:
1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.
1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.
I have many dreams for this country, but chief among them is for our children to have the opportunities to play and imagine, as is their right. We cannot solve this problem immediately, but we can at least inform ourselves about it and do what we can to mitigate it, wherever we may be. The hope of our future depends on it.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” – Matthew 19:14