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Life not sweet for Philippines' sugar cane child workers

By Kyung Lah, CNN
May 2, 2012 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Child labor is common practice is Philippine region of Mindanao
  • Children as young as seven can work each day in sugar fields
  • Philippines government plans to reduce child labor by 75% by 2015
  • Some suggest cultural ties to families working together make it harder to eradicate

Editor's note: CNN International's Eye On series is visiting the Philippines. Read and watch in-depth reports from the country online and on TV until May 14.

(CNN) -- Barefoot and covered in dirt and sweat, 14-year-old Dante Campilan pulls weeds from orderly rows of sugar cane.

Wearing an oversized red cap to protect him from the scorching Philippine sun, Dante is doing work that should be reserved for men, not children.

Earning 150 pesos ($3.50) for a seven-hour day, Dante has been a child laborer in the Philippine region of Mindanao since he was seven years old. He says he does it to help his parents, but he is just one of many children who are part of an illegal economic system of child labor.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates 2.4 million child workers are in the Philippines. Many of them, according to the ILO, are in rural areas working in fields and mines. The organization estimates 60% work in hazardous conditions.

Ending child labor in the Philippines

Alongside Dante is 13-year-old Alvic James, who dropped out of school when he was in the first grade. Back then, he explained, his family didn't have enough money to eat. Alvic says he wants to learn to read and write but because he is needed in the fields he has no time to go to school.

When the boys turn 15 or 16, they'll move on to the more hazardous job of cutting sugar cane. That's currently the job of 16-year-old Elmar Paran, who hasn't been to school since he was a young child, sentencing him to a future in the fields.

The use of child laborers in the sugar fields of Northern Mindanao is so common that landowner Angeles Penda shrugs it off as a way of life. "The parents beg us to include their children to work," she said.

Much of the sugar produced in the fields here ends up in coffee shops, on kitchen tables and on store shelves across the world.

"We do not deny that child labor exists in our industry," said Edith Villanueva, the president and COO of the Sugar Industry Foundation. "It's a practice among families who are paid piecemeal for their work. They like to employ their children because there's more income for the families."

Villanueva said that paying workers more so they're not tempted to use their children has not worked in the past. She cites the strong cultural ties of families working together in the fields as one of the main problems.

If you don't change family attitudes and their values, then you don't change their way of life. There's a long term solution and it's really education.
Villanueva, Sugar Industry Foundation Inc

"If you don't change their attitude and their values, then you don't change their way of life. There's a long-term solution and it's really education. We feel children should want to go to school, they should be kept in school, and aware of the rights of the children, the rights of the child to go to school and the right of the child to play," she said.

The child labor problem is so overt and widespread in this region that Villanueva says the Sugar Industry Foundation and the Coca-Cola Foundation are paying to build a four-room high school that is set to open later this month.

The Coca-Cola company is one of the largest buyers of sugar in the world and the sugar factories fed by the fields of Northern Mindanao call Coca-Cola one of their main customers.

In a statement to CNN, Coca-Cola said it "does not support, encourage or endorse any form of child labor in our operations throughout our global bottling system or in our supplier network."

The company says it conducts continuous assessments of its operations to ensure strong policies and practices are in place to help avoid child labor.

In September 2010, the Coca-Cola Foundation says it joined a coalition of the local government, the ILO and private industry to remove children from sugarcane fields with the hope of eradicating child labor in the Bukidnon region.

The Philippines government has also pledged to reduce child labor by 75% by 2015.

By then Dante will be 17-years-old. It's more likely that he will have graduated to cutting sugar cane than high school.

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