Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

Child labor exploitation is worsening in the Philippines. In 2011, the Philippine National Statistics Office reported that there were 5.5 million working children in the country, 2.9 million of whom were working in hazardous industries such as mines and plantations. The agency added that 900,000 children have stopped schooling in order to work. The following year, the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR) released a survey that showed that one out of four workers in palm oil plantations in northeast Mindanao region were children below 18 years old.

Last month, the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education Research (EILER) published a baseline study which confirmed the prevalence of child labor in mines and plantations in various parts of the country. In plantation communities, about 22.5 percent of households have child workers. In mining towns, child labor incidence was 14 percent. The group noted that the youngest worker interviewed in the study was five years old, although the common age of child workers was 12. The group learned that 76 percent of child laborers have stopped attending school. Most child laborers were working for 10 hours a day, or 13 to 16 hours a day in some extreme cases.

Child laborers in oil palm fields often serve as fruiters, harvesters, haulers, loaders, and uprooters. Meanwhile, child laborers in sugarcane estates work in weeding, harvesting and fetching of water. Banana plantation workers are assigned in bagging and de-leafing duties. Outside banana plantations younger children are involved as banana peelers for rejected bananas which will be dried and processed as animal feeds.

In mines, child laborers usually fetch water, carry sacks of rocks, load thick logs that are used to support the underground tunnels, or become errand boys of regular workers. They are also reserve workers or relievers whenever regular miners cannot come to work.

Girls in mines work in gold panning or provide services to miners such as doing their laundry or cooking meals.

EILER observed that child workers are exposed to extreme weather conditions, long working hours, and harsh environments while using substandard tools and equipment. In plantations, trucks would pick children from their homes and bring them to makeshift tents that are located in nearby provinces to stay and work there from two weeks to one month without their parents. And since most plantations use harmful agro-chemicals, the children are also directly exposed to these threats.

Children in mines are handling dangerous tools and are made to work without personal protective equipment for long hours. They are also vulnerable to social hazards like the use of illegal drugs inside the tunnels to keep them awake for hours.

“The nature of their work which provides very little wages coupled with the fact that they skip school means that child laborers are unable to break from the families’ cycle of poverty, perpetuating the problem of inter-generational poverty among the poor families in the plantation and mining industries,” said Anna Leah Escresa-Colina, executive director of EILER.

She added that low wages, contractualization, and lack of livelihood for families as some of the factors pushing children to work even in hazardous and difficult jobs to augment family incomes.

Ambassador Guy Ledoux of the European Union emphasized that “it is important that dissuasive penalties are imposed in practice on persons who subject children to work in hazardous or exploitative conditions.” The EU provided assistance in conducting the study on child labor in the Philippines.

The EILER study confirmed earlier surveys about the high number of children working in hazardous industries. It also highlighted the failure or inadequacy of government initiatives to address the problem. As the world marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Philippines must be more aggressive in combating the worst forms of child labor in various parts of the country.

Questions Raised About US Anti-Terror Cooperation

Written for The Diplomat

American soldiers did not join in any actual combat but they did provide intelligence, training, real-time information, equipment, and aircraft in a successful but controversial anti-terror operation in southern Philippines.

This was one of the findings of the Board of Inquiry of the Philippine National Police, which was created to probe the operation which killed 67 Filipinos, including 44 members of the police elite unit Special Action Force (SAF). The January 25, 2015 operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao succeeded in killing Bali bomber Zhulkifli Bin Hir/Zulkifli Abhir (Marwan) but was also viewed as a tragedy because of the high number of casualties.

Marwan was a Malaysian citizen who escaped to the Philippines after the Bali bombing. He was a wanted international terrorist with a $5 million bounty placed by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The police operation to arrest Marwan raised several issues that have undermined the leadership of President Benigno Aquino III. The president was accused of violating the chain of command when he designated a suspended police general to coordinate the operation. The police general also failed to properly inform the army and even the top leadership of the police about the operation.

Another blunder is the failure to coordinate the planned attack with Muslim separatist rebels who control the area. The rebels are not linked to Marwan and they have a ceasefire agreement with the government. Aside from Marwan’s team, it was the rebels and other private armed groups which figured in a deadly clash with the police.

There is also the issue about the unclear involvement of the Americans in the operation. Residents recalled seeing foreigners and a flying object in their village during the week of the encounter. But an information officer of the U.S. embassy told local media that “no U.S. surveillance drone was used” in the operation.

Last week, the police finally released its report about the Mamasapano incident; and it tackled, among others, the role of the Americans in the operation.

Below are excerpts of the report:

“Six American nationals were at the Tactical Command Post in Shariff Aguak starting on the eve of the operations to provide real-time information (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaisance) to the SAF troops.”

“The US counterparts provided real-time information on the actual movements of friendly and enemy forces in the area of operations…by providing technical equipment and aircraft, which they themselves operated.”

“The severed left index finger of Marwan was sent to two representatives of US-FBI waiting at General Santos City.”

The report emphasized that “there were no armed US troops engaged in combat in the area of operations.” It added that the technical support was valuable because the police “was able to elude large enemy formations, thereby avoiding further casualties.” It also recognized the medical evacuations performed by US personnel. It did, however, note that the decision to submit Marwan’s finger to the FBI is not standard procedure; the DNA sample should have been turned over to the local police crime laboratory.

The report is probably the first time that a government agency has given details about the involvement of the U.S. in local military operations. The implications are also staggering. Based on the report, Americans were aware of an anti-terror operation, while the army, the acting police chief, and the secretary of Interior and Local Government were only informed about it on the day itself, when the attacking forces suffered heavily and needed reinforcement and artillery support. The Americans were even stationed at the Tactical Command Post.

Senator Ralph Recto is curious to learn more about the involvement of the Americans. “Let me clarify: I do not object to the American’s [six] assistance in hunting down terrorists, but in this particular case it seems the US role was extraordinary. Up to what extent can we allow them to play a role?”

“Because it is clear to me, this wasn’t just assistance in providing intelligence; we were given equipment. Look at the situation: the PNP [police] did not coordinate with the AFP [army] but they coordinated with the Americans; there’s something amiss there,” he added.

Congress, which suspended public hearings about the operation, will probably ask for more information about this issue once it resumed sessions.

Aquino’s credibility as leader and commander-in-chief has been eroded because of the Mamasapano operation. It also affected the ongoing peace negotiations with Muslim rebels. As for military cooperation with the U.S., expect rising skepticism among local leaders.

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