Getting kids out of the sugarcane fields

Getting kids out of the sugarcane fields | World Vision Blog

Community education team on Negros Island, Philippines. (Photo: 2014 Jesse Eaves/World Vision)

Marking the World Day Against Child Labor today, Jesse Eaves – our policy advisor in D.C. – writes about his recent trip to the Philippines, where World Vision is working with communities to stop hazardous child labor in the sugarcane fields.

Meet 12-year-old Oscar, and read how he's helping to prevent the job that he might have had without this program.


Oscar* swings the machete into the ground and twists the blade, leaving a hole where the sugarcane shoot will go. He’s small for 12 but he’s strong – bent over at the waist, moving forward, making the same motion again and again. The Philippine sun is relentless. It’s summer and Oscar has only made a few swipes, but just standing outside is enough to drench him with sweat. He stands up to wipe his brow. Then he swings and twists his machete one more time. This is how you plant sugarcane.

“Okay stop!” comes the cry of a woman’s voice. “Thank you, Oscar!” Oscar stops swinging the plastic toy and runs back under a tree, barely even noting the other women who are gathered around him giving knowing nods to the work he has just demonstrated.

Three years ago, planting sugarcane would have been Oscar’s real job. It was definitely a job his older brothers did. Instead, he’s part of a community education team that trains communities that harvest sugarcane on what types of work are acceptable for teenagers aged 15-17. This is how he spends his summer – volunteering his time to ensure that other children never have to do what he and his brothers had to do only a few short years ago.

Negros is the largest sugar-producing region in the Philippines. Everywhere you look are vast stretches of sugarcane fields. While Philippine national law forbids any child under the age of 15 from working, the law was (and in some areas still is) largely ignored. Families are too poor. School fees can be expensive. The price of sugar is low, which means that families must harvest as much sugar as they can as quickly as possible so they can get it to the processing plants and get paid for their work.

To do this, everyone in the family must work. Because sugarcane can be grown year round, because of the low price of sugar, and because of the need to harvest as much and as quickly as possible, children are routinely removed from school so they can help their families survive. 

The root of child labor and child work in Negros (and indeed in much of the Philippines and the world) is economic – you need all-hands working to have enough to eat. And sometimes even that wasn’t even enough. Oscar remembers his older brothers working in the sugarcane fields in the blazing sun and returning home to find a little rice for dinner.

His brothers were two of the estimated 85 million children worldwide who take part in hazardous work. This number is high. However, it has declined from 171 million children in 2000. This is progress.

As we mark the World Day Against Child Labor today, everyone can be like Oscar and play a role in reducing the number of child laborers even more. They are taking action in the Philippines. Three years ago, a program called ABK3 (ABK are the first three letters of the Filipino alphabet) started in Negros Occidental and in six other provinces in the Philippines.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Labor**, the ABK3 project aims to reduce the number of children working in the sugarcane industry, with a particular focus on 12-14 year-olds (those most likely to be removed from school to work) and 15-17 year-olds. These are kids who may be physically able to do the work, but are not allowed to because it can still be harmful to them.

The program (in partnership with the Sugar Industry Foundation) educates communities on what kind of work is acceptable (weeding, planting, watering) and what kind is unacceptable (cutting sugarcane, lifting bundles onto trucks, any work done when a child should be in school).

Even more importantly, the program works with families to increase their income through such things as small business loans and communal and backyard gardens. Business is booming. One community has created the largest organic farm in the Philippines and people are coming from as far away as the capital in Manila to buy their vegetables. This economic boost has all but eliminated child labor in the community, and neighboring villages have taken notice and want to learn how the town did it!

Oscar is all smiles when he digs the plastic machete into the ground. He knows that this is just for show. Summer will be over soon and his classes await. He wants to be a teacher. He’s already got a good head start. In addition to participating on the community education team, Oscar is a “Little Teacher” – a tutor for other kids his age who have fallen behind in school due to having to work.

“My dream is to finish my studies,” he says. “That is how I can really help my family.” He is well on his way.

You can be like Oscar and help prevent and speak out against child labor here.

One of the best ways to help ensure that a child is protected from vulnerabilities like child labor and trafficking is through sponsorship. Choose a child to sponsor in the Philippines today!

*Name changed to protect his identity

**This material does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the United States Department of Labor, nor does the mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the United States Government.

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