Yesterday morning I landed in the new airport in Silay City, Negros Occidental. Its signage is Silay-Bacolod in deference to the former airport. The clean modern lines impressed me, even if I was only half-awake, having left home at 3:00 am.
The first kilometers out of the airport cut through vast sugar cane fields. If only for this, I told myself, the new location of the airport is very appropriate.Visitors are immediately reminded that Negros Occidental is the largest sugar producing province of the Philippines. The history of the province is tied to the fortunes of its sugar industry, and sugar continues to define its society, despite some diversification of the economy.
Although ELF started its partnership with Quidan Kaisahan (QK) in 1997, we did not address the issue of child labor in the sugar plantations of Negros Occidental. ELF’s core program is grassroots leadership formation for grassroots community empowerment, and it is our area-based partners who choose both the grassroots leaders we train, and the program and perspectives for which we train them.
Quidan Kaisahan’s program then was what we call now “participatory local governance” at the level of barangay-bayan, for sustainable integrated area development. During the discussions at the board meeting of Quidam Katilingban Development Institute (QKDI), Teody Pena of QK said: “The issue of child labor in sugar plantations always confronted us, since they appeared to be the sector that is most vulnerable and oppressed. But we did not want to simply do public advocacy on the issue. We wanted to do something that would directly help them. But we didn’t know what to do, or how.”
For their part, the local government leaders and other Negros elite were in a state of official denial. “No, there are no child laborers in the sugar plantations,” they would say. “If there are any at all, they are only helping their parents in their family farms.”
QK’s work in PLG covers all the barangays of Toboso, Murcia, Hinigaran, La Castellana, and Sipalay City. It has helped build the capabilities of barangay officials and other community leaders to activate the Barangay Development Council, formulate their Barangay Development Plan and Annual Investment Plans, based on participatory rapid appraisal and planning, and spend their Barangay Development Fund on projects prioritized by the community.
In addition, QK has helped the BDCs set up a small micro-lending fund, administered by a project management committee. Later, a new sister organizations was set up to respond to the communities’ increased financial needs and capabilities – Pag-inupdanay Inc. (PI)
The PLG work of QK has received deserved recognition, and in addition to PI, it has set up new programs and institutions to address other issues of the communities. I like its practice of recruiting many of its new staff from the grassroots community leaders. Teody introduced the three new executive directors of QK, PI, and QKDI – Cookie, Alan, and Teddy – and mentioned with pride that they started as staff who came from the local communities.
Still, the issue of child labor kept coming up, and two years ago, QK decided to start a pilot program on child labor in five barangays of Murcia. Just about the same time, ELF was approached by ILO to implement a project on offering alternative learning system (ALS) to child workers in sugar lands. We asked our three partners in Negros – QK, ESKAN, and NOFFA if they would want to take part. Eventually, QK took up the challenge.
The funds from ILO allowed QK and ELF to offer ALS to 2000 children who were either already working in the fields or children-at-risk. But the funds were good for a project of only 10 months. Both ELF and QK felt that it is unrealistic and unfair to the children and their families to offer a one-shot type of program, with no prospects of sustainability.
We found the solution in the PLG work of QK. QK asked the barangay and other community leaders to identify those whom we would train as “grassroots community educator-leaders” or GCELs. We also asked them to contribute some counterpart to the limited ILO funds. The project design also included the setting up of Barangay Councils for the Protection of Women and Children, as the institutional expression of the barangay’s continuing commitment to the elimination of child labor. Some barangay councils issued special ordinances banning child labor.
Even if the child workers were offered another chance to study and acquire the equivalent of a high school certificate, what could we offer the parents in place of the income that their household would lose? ELF and QK proposed that some of the ILO funds should be added to the community-managed micro lending fund, but we were told that the source of the funds, the US Department of Labor, did not allow any of the money to be used for loans or livelihood projects.
The sister organization, PI, came to the rescue, and opened their lending facility to parents who would allow and support their children’s decision to join the ALS learning groups.
Even before this ALS project, QK had already been mulling the setting up of a sister organization that would specialize in education and training. The training of over a hundred GCELs through the project hastened the process of setting up QKDI.
We held the first meeting of the QKDI board in the provincial sports facility that was built for the 1998 Palarong Pambansa. On the way to the meeting room we passed by a group of 130-plus child workers who were there for a week, preparing to take the governments exams for ALS learners.
“Last year there were only 51 out of school youth learners from Negros Occidental who passed the exams,” Teody informed us. “Of that number, 16 came from other learning groups in the province. The majority, all 35 of them, were part of our program.”
I asked about a child worker whose story I had heard during my previous visit to Sipalay. I didn’t know his name, but I heard that he worked in charcoal production. The story that struck me was how he would run from the mountain barangay to join the weekly sessions of the learning group. He was also quoted as saying: “Even if I do not pass the exams, I will still continue with the program. I want to be an IM (Instructional Manager) so I can help other child laborers.”
“His name is Benjie,” Teody informed me. “He had dropped out of second year high school because his family needed him to work. He is now 17, and is one of the 35 passers.”
After passing the exams, he asked his employer for permission to stop working because he wanted to enter college, but his employer refused. “Why did he need his permission?” I asked.
“I couldn’t believe it, but his was a case of bonded labor,” explained Teody. “He had borrowed money from his employer to help feed his family, and unless he repaid his debt, his employer could insist that he continue working for him.”
How much did Benjie owe his employer” Just 2000 pesos. The QK staff chipped in enough money to pay his debt. Benjie took the entrance exams to the local Negros Occidental Agricultural College. “He topped the exams,” Teody said with obvious pride. “He enrolled in the education course, since he wanted to be a teacher.”
I thought the story ended on that high note. But after only a semester, Benjie had to stop schooling, since he had no more money. But before my spirits sank further, Teody added, “We will hire him for QKDI work.”
I spent an hour sharing with the QKDI board the “arithmetic” of the Education for All or EFA – 6 plus 9 plus 5. The 6 refers to the 6 goals of EFA 2015 defined at Dakar. The 9 refers to the 9 tasks of the Philippine National Action Plan for EFA. The 5 refers to the KRTs (key reform tasks) of the Basic Education Sector Reform Agenda or BESRA.
At the global level, the Global Campaign for Education or GCE is leading the campaign to make governments and donors deliver on their international commitments. At the national level, E-net sits as co-chair of the National EFA Committee, and seeks to make the government fulfill its responsibilities to provide quality education for all.
What about the local level? We talked about setting up local EFA committees, and how they could include both the Local School Boards and the Local Literacy Coordinating Councils where they exist. I also reflected on the evolution of QK’s work and how QKDI’s developing framework could be called PLG-EFA.
I do find it worth my while and I enjoy discussing frameworks, strategies, and conceptual stuff. But on this morning’s flight back to Manila, it was the story of Benjie and his struggle for learning and life that kept playing in my mind.