Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Problem of Child Labor

Domination is not a necessary fact of human life. Most analysis on human injustice focus on causal links or the empirical without due regard for systemic wrong. This undermines the human being who is the moral locus of attention in a philosophical investigation. No human being has a pre-ordained destiny, and for this reason it is truly important to examine the rootedness of oppression and other forms of exploitation in modern society. Enrique Dussel points to the egocentric logic of the Western mind.  History, for him, is “the space of a world within the ontological horizon is the space of a world center, of the organic, self-conscious state that brooks no contradictions because it is an imperialist state.” (Dussel 1985, 2)

Fr. Vitaliano Gorospe, SJ, in The Filipino Search for Meaning, writes that “the fundamental purpose of economic development ought not to be production and consumption, mere profit or domination, but the service of each person.” (Gorospe 1974, 440) People are not economic objects. To use them in order to benefit the upper echelons of society is an abominable crime against humanity. Indeed, according to Fr. Gorospe, the reality of injustice “is caused in great part by the imbalance of power between the rich few and the masses of the people.” (Ibid) In the case of the Philippines, one can point to the reality of colonial rule as reflective of the huge gap between those who has the favor of the state and those who are pushed into the margins of society. It is the bourgeois who run the economy who in turn run the weak state (White 2009, 283)

The modest aim of this paper is to pay attention to the insufferable lives millions of children in the Philippines. The subjection of our children is a scandal that all of us are a party to. It goes without saying that the problem of child labor, for instance, its reality, is reflective of the evil nature of social injustice. Fr. John Carroll’s strong point that Philippine institutions are characterized as ineffective in meeting expectations is still valid four decades thereafter. Fr. Carroll’s assertion corroborates the judgment that something is wrong in this country or in the Filipino people, because we have simply failed to live up to the idea, according to Fr. Gorospe, of “what a nation is, what it can be, and what it ought to be.” (Ibid, 456)

Child Labor and Human Poverty

Undeniably helpless in their ordeal, a huge number of children are illegally trafficked. Child labor victims have been thrown into decrepit factories, prostitution dens, dangerous mines, and in other dehumanizing places of work. And in addition to the above, hundreds of thousands of children also work in dumpsites, in the fishing industry, in mines, in public markets, and other equally hazardous places while some have been documented as child soldiers or peddled through online pornography. Many children coming from IP (Indigenous People) communities, due to absolute poverty, are child laborers.

The economist and philosopher Amartya Sen describes child labor as that “barbarity of children being forced to do things...made much beastlier still through its congruence with bondage and effective slavery.” (Sen 1999, 115) But Sen also notes that abolishing such exploitation without corresponding opportunity to enhance the life situation of these children is equally problematic. Sen’s concern is empirical and economic. However, there are deeper issues that need to be thoroughly assessed in order to respond to this problem in a more holistic way. The fact of the matter is that our children have become the faces of modern day slavery. One of the most appalling examples we can mention is the trafficking of young girls who are sent abroad as child prostitutes.

In Sen’s analysis, the problem of child labor is often linked to human poverty, and for this reason, economic progress is supposed to be the key to the freedom of enslaved children. But the problem is more fundamental – the lack of respect for the basic humanity of the poor. What is more disturbing, however, is the indifference of our people to the malady of child labor. The children in the margins live as non-existent beings. Their struggles and suffering, however, have remained unimaginable.

We are morally responsible for this problem. Fr. Gorospe tells us that “the full exercise of moral responsibility includes the citizen's concern for the common good of society even when it conflicts with the individual's interest.” (Ibid, 419) But the reality is that even the most affluent sectors of society, who have the means to help those in disparate need, disregard the suffering of these children. To most people who own businesses in Makati’s CBD, these young souls do not have an essential stake in any economic configuration of their world.

The Philippine government has been ineffective in fighting child trafficking and in stopping child abuse. While the state is supposedly the bastion of the preservation and promotion of the common good, what has happened is that the state today faces the moral burden of failing to promote and protect the interest of our children as some statistical figures show. Consider, for instance, the inability of government agencies in protecting the welfare of street children in many urban centers. In addition, most measures have become merely palliative and lack policy direction. The lack of corresponding budget for child welfare programs has not only exacerbated the situation of street children but is also reflected of society’s lack of respect for their dignity as human beings.

The truism with regard to the huge divide between very rich and the very poor provides the ink to the merciless and often ruthless fact of life that children go through. Rich kids play with expensive gadgets and waste most of their time online whereas poor kids are busy looking for trash in order to survive. Pope Leo XIII admonishes in Rerum Novarum that “the richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.”

Fr. Gorospe notes in his critical analysis of Philippine society that our authorities have “for the most part been misunderstood and functional as power to dominate and exploit others for one's own personal interest.” (Gorospe 1974, 419) The cruel lives of those children in the margins of Philippine society point to a triad of evil - control, manipulation, and exploitation. This triad is undeniable in a society that favors the elite and disregards the powerless poor. It is for this reason that victims of child labor have been perpetually condemned to a hell-hole type of existence – the ultimate altar of doom that human selfishness has created for the children in the margins.

Poverty is the greatest scandal to humanity. Since our government structures are defective, children are the ones who suffer because of their vulnerability. So, the achievement of the common good is not just about ending corruption. It also means knowing what to do and how to do things in a complex world where power controls almost everything, including what we think and how we come to rationalize things. The poor must have access to and should enjoy equal opportunity.

Good schools cannot be exclusive the playground for rich children. Education is something that every child out there deserves. You cannot buy good education, for if you do, somebody must have been paying it for you. Poor kids traverse kilometers of dirt to reach their school. Thus, rich kids cannot waste their time in school by spending more on trivial inanities. How can people say that they value the lives of others when each and every single day the only interest that they serve is their own? The mentality to brand something as “exclusive,” including the kind of academic training that our children get, has contributed a lot to the deterioration of the quality of life of the ordinary Filipino. While one cannot really take away from any bright young man or woman the very fruits of his hard work in emancipating himself or herself from the bondage of poverty, the commercialization of education in the Philippines has hindered the huge and average majority from realizing their basic freedom from non-interference, thereby depriving them of opportunities for a dignified existence.

The Subjection of Our Children
The common good must be made apparent in its concrete term, which is not, as defined by Fr. Gorospe, “the sum total of the social, political and economic goods in society; it is the dynamic common good of persons, the total human development of each and every person.” (Gorospe 1974, 419) Child labor, being a malignant social cancer, is a prime example of how we have failed to promote the common good. Children scavenging for trash are a painful symbol of the reality of inequitable growth in the country. The non-inclusive nature of the country’s economic development excludes the poor and favors only the children of the rich. We can thus make this bold moral claim that our basic structure has simply failed to promote the human rights of poor children. Systemic failures in the re-distribution of social primary goods, notably in healthcare and education, have all contributed to the worsening state of this social malady.

The world spends more money on war than in making children happy. Since the government cannot carry the full burden in educating the whole population the private sector must recognize its role in solving the problem. But tuition fees in most private schools have become prohibitively expensive. The education reform in the country through the K-12 curriculum, which has been suggested to improve the quality of education in the country, will not transform the lives of poor but will exacerbate their already insufferable existence. This blunder comes from the fact that this latest experiment on our poor kids closes its eyes to the fact that drop outs come from the poorest families.

While universities proclaim that they exist for the greater good of humankind, the price tag they put on education utterly belie such a pronouncement. Education is a right, but in this country, it has always been a matter of privilege since colonial times. Rich kids get good education. Many poor kids don't. The end result is poor children scavenging for trash. Many children simply end up becoming criminals, drug dependents - indeed, a life so violent that one finds it not worth living. The undeniable truth is thousands of children who deserve quality education don't get it because they do not have the means to afford it. Opportunities simply don't exist. Thus, the poor child is resigned to his fate, unhappy and without a future.

Fr. Gorospe points out the reason why many Filipinos live miserable lives: “So far the socio-politico-economic power in Philippine society has been concentrated in the hands of the few and therefore the task of justice is to enable the many especially the masses to share equitably in that power.” (Ibid, 419) Millions of children are condemned to a life of misery and cruelty because expensive schools make quality education hopelessly impossible for the destitute. Any effort, however hard, prayers included, to change one's life for many of these children will simply be pointless and utterly futile. While it is apparent that many victims of child labor also come from broken homes, they too are a product of unjust systems and cultural hegemony, reduced to being mere instruments – dehumanized no end, humiliated and stripped of their dignity, their childhood stolen forever.

Young girls are often sent off by parents to become house-helps to pay for family debts, and young girls, more often than not, do not complain because our male-dominated culture restricts them from exercising their desire to be free. Young boys are forced to grow old faster as they carry heavy loads in piers and construction sites. But the finger pointing must end somewhere. More importantly, perhaps, while we have acknowledged that child labor is a moral problem, it is not enough that we recognize our moral accountability. We need concrete steps in order to address the widespread inequalities in the country in order to thwart social disintegration brought forth by broadening income gaps.

Fundamentally, many among us too are equally guilt by exclusively loving our own. Since child labor is a systemic wrong, establishing a society that respects the dignity of each person is important to end the terrible indifference against the poor. The thing is that we spend more on a new gadget to feed our desires than to personally care for the sick, dying and needy child out there. We cannot really be all too concerned about those saints who parade what they give to charity. The bigger task, and even more dangerous, is to find those sinners who have exploited the poor for their self-serving motives.