I MET Larry on his 17th birthday. He spent it cutting weeds in a sugarcane field, in the province of Negros Occidental, located on the central island of Visayas in the Philippines.
His supervisor, or Kabo, calls him over to speak with me. From within a great green wall of stalks and leaves he stumbles out of the plantation, little taller than a 12 year old.
He looks a little nervous as he approaches. In one hand he brandishes a machete, covering his eyes against the rising tropic sun. He uses the other to take off his hoodie, meant to protect his dark, sun-worn skin from the sharp leaves of the sugarcane plants.
A couple of his friends gather to watch. I ask him if he has any plans for his birthday today. He laughs, and says with the help of a translator: “I’m doing nothing. I just want to work.”
According to the 2011 NSO Survey on Children, 2.1 million child labourers, aged between 5 and 17, work in sugarcane fields across the Philippines. This is illegal, yet commonplace in rural areas.
Larry and his thirteen year old brother work on the plantation seven days a week, from sunrise to sunset.
“They have no choice,”says Irwin Deligente, an administrator at their sugarcane plantation. “Their ancestors have been here from the start. Their fathers and grandfathers have done it. They don’t know anything, only to work in the fields. They’re living in a world of sugarcane.”
Sugar is the Philippines’ biggest export. It shapes the landscape, with fields in abundance across the country. Their distinctive long, green stalks line roads and backgardens, serving as a reminder of their cultural and economic significance.
Larry’s home region, Negros Occidental, is responsible for over half of the nation’s sugar production. This is a fact so well-known, that its residents are noted for their “sweet, sugary” accents.
“It’s like a business without losses,” said Irwin, a stout, dark-skinned man in Raybans and Levi jeans.“Even if you have typhoons or drought, you will always have your sugarcane.”
Sugarcane workers plant, cultivate and harvest their crops at a hacienda (plantation), where they are paid 80 pesos (roughly £1) for every ton they collect.
Long hours, sweltering heat and physical strain are compromised by menial work. It’s so basic a child could do it, which makes underage labourers like Larry a common sight.
In 2012, the Philippines government vowed to reduce child labour in the country by 75% by 2015. Three years later the problem persists, as the sugarcane fields continue to present accessible economic means in a country ridden with poverty.
“To put it shortly, we know we haven’t met the 75% reduction,” says Giovanni Soledad, project manager of the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).
“There’s really a demand for the work of children, but it’s still illegal,” he adds. “Employers would rather that their operations are hidden, outside the eyes and ears of the enforcement agencies.
“It’s more cost-effective for them if they employ children. If there’s weeding or planting you can pay them a lower wage. They don’t complain, they work longer hours and you get more money.”
Larry began working in the fields at the age of 15. His father, a plantation worker, suddenly passed away, leaving his family with no source of income. He was forced to drop out of school and pick up a machete, cutting the same plants like his father did before him.
Through an interpreter, he said: “My mother told me I should go to school, but I didn’t want to go because we didn’t have enough money. So I just worked in the field. I don’t know how long I’ll be here.”
Many families live on the haciendas they work in, making sugarcane an intrinsic part of their children’s lives. In a cyclical pattern, children often end up illiterate or made unaware of further opportunity.
Life is just about cutting sugarcane to “put food in your mouth”, according to Irwin. He says: “Child labourers often take out loans to afford everyday expenses. They work in the fields to pay them off. It is enough so they can eat.”
Over 50% of child labour is in agriculture, where general knowledge of child labour issues amongst workers is almost non-existent.
“Parents in these areas know very little,” says Giovanni. “Their awareness about what constitutes good parenting and what laws are out there for the protection of children is very low.
“They don’t know that if they allow their children to work they may be liable in the eyes of the law. There really needs to be a massive dissemination of information.”
There’s an appeal to the fields, especially for families, on what is called the piece-rate system. The aim is to cover an area of land in the quickest time possible. This is where parents may bring their children, some as young as four, to work. Salaries are paid on an individual basis, meaning more bodies equals triple or even quadrupled income for one family.
“For generations that will have been the practice,” explains Giovanni. “To earn more money you have to really involve your children. Child-based labour in sugarcane is the nature of the beast.”
Irwin adds: “They are really very poor and have no choice but to do it. Sometimes if parents can’t work or are sick, the child will take their place. They do it so their family can survive.”
Work at the sugarcane fields can be hazardous. The Philippines’ Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) warn against the dangers of heat stress and exhaustion, whilst accidents involving machetes are not uncommon.
Larry once cut his feet whilst chopping cane stems, and required immediate medical attention. Despite this, and the hot working conditions, he enjoys his work.
He says: “I like being in the fields because when I work I never feel tired. If I feel tired in the morning, the fields and my friends make it go away.”
Workers at Larry’s plantation begin work at 5am and end at 4pm, taking breaks at scheduled times to avoid the worst of the day’s heat. They are provided with snacks and lunch, and can often be seen laughing and joking with each other. When approached for pictures, one of Larry’s older female coworkers told me, in Tagalog: “make sure you make me look beautiful!”
“It is good to keep them happy,” said Irwin, “because it helps give them motivation to work harder. You have to form a connection with them.”
Despite the community spirit found at Larry’s plantation, wages here are low. He earns up to 540 pesos (about £7) for every 10,000 sugarcanes, or laksa, that his team plants. This could take days, depending on how fast they work.
When money is low he may go to one of the bigger haciendas, which can span over 50 hectares. Wages are higher, but the work is harder, with strict management. Irwin said: “They like to take advantage of them because they [child labourers] are seen as expendable.”
Larry’s situation is that of millions of other child workers in the Philippines. The world’s desire for sugar, the exploitation of a natural resource and the abundance of basic labour opportunities keep those in poverty coming back to the sugarcane fields. Re-education initiatives are often rolled out by the government, but this rarely reaches rural areas. For some, it may already be too late to escape the cycle.
When asked about the future, Larry said: “If I had enough money I would go back to school and become a policeman. But I just want to work and earn money.”