Early this year, news footage of two-year-old Ardi Rizal puffing away in Indonesia, the world’s third largest tobacco-consuming nation, sparked global outrage. Much of the criticism was directed toward the boy’s father, who said he gave his son his first stick when he was only an 18-month old baby.
Ardi quickly became the face of his country’s struggle to regulate an industry that has made wanton smoking among its young people possible within a short span of 10 years. The Indonesian toddler’s smoking habit reportedly costs his parents roughly P260 per day, or P50 more than the daily minimum wage of a farmer in the Ilocos Region, the Philippines’ main tobacco-growing region.
Judging from Ardi’s photos on the Internet, he is almost the same size as four-year old Ruby (not her real name), who is already helping her family to grow tobacco in Ilocos. At a tender age, she joins her nine siblings in picking up tobacco leaves in preparation for drying.
Ruby—and many kids doing the same task—hardly knows what the tobacco leaves are for, or that there’s a child half her age in a neighboring country who throws tantrums if he doesn’t get his daily nicotine dose.
All in the Family
Her hair unkempt and her feet bare, Ruby stares at the carpet of tobacco leaves outside the family hut. Barely three feet tall, she gets a pointed bamboo stick about two feet long and starts to skewer the scattered leaves with skillful abandon, unmindful that the hazardous task could pluck her eyes out with one wrong move.
Her family has been planting tobacco for 21 years, one of the 1.93 million Filipinos who are dependent on the tobacco industry.
“Kapag ganitong tag-araw, talagang ito lang ang pinagkukunan namin. Pag tag-ulan, palay,” (This is our only source of income during the dry season. During wet months, we plant rice) Ruby’s mother Imelda said.
Like other farmers, however, Imelda said the family often ends up consuming the rice, which is barely enough for their own needs. Tobacco is the only cash crop in their 1.5-hectare tobacco farm, yielding around P10,000 in net income last year.
For capital expenses, they rely on neighbors who are willing to lend them money. Imelda’s husband Renato said they currently owe P60, 000 to creditors: P40, 000 for this crop year, and almost P20, 000 from the previous tobacco season.
He blamed the series of typhoons in 2009 for the weak profits and unpaid debt. “Nasira sa bagyo ‘yong mga inani namin, kaya kakaunti lang iyong natira para mabenta. Lugi talaga kami kasi kahit na-ani namin lahat, wala namang natira dahil noong nagsiliparan ‘yong mga yero noong bagyo, nasama rin ‘yong mga ani namin,” (We were left with hardly anything to sell after the typhoons ravaged our crops, damaging even those left hanging in our homes for drying) Renato lamented.
Living on barely P300 a day, the Feleos are one big family—Imelda and Renato, their ten children aged between 20 and two, as well as their eldest child’s own year-old daughter and her husband.
Imelda and Renato did not finish school, and some of their older children have decided to drop out as well. “Mas gusto kasi nilang tumulong kaysa mag-aral (They prefer to help rather than go to school),” Imelda said. The younger children attend the local public school.
A daughter who is hoping to take up criminology in college may not be able to pursue her studies if the family doesn’t recover from last year’s debacle. “Kung sakali, siya ang pinaka-una sa aming makakatuntong ng kolehiyo (If she does, she would be the first among us to reach college),” Imelda said.
Like most tobacco-growing families in Ilocos, the Feleos allow young children to help in minor tasks such as gathering tobacco leaves for drying, uprooting weeds, and watering the tobacco plants. The older ones apply fertilizers and watch over the curing process, which usually takes five days.
But most parents are quick to say that the children are never obliged to help out. “Meron namang mga umaangal kaunti kapag na-eengganyo silang maglaro, lalo na itong mga maliliit. Sabi ko sa kanila, magtusok kayo, buting pandagdag lang natin sa pambili ng mga gamit ninyo (When not doing anything else, my children gather tobacco leaves. I always remind this would help with our expenses),” Imelda said.
Imelda said little Ruby was never taught to gather tobacco leaves: “Nakikita niya iyong mga kapatid niya na nagtutusok, kaya sabi niya sa akin, ‘Mama magtutusok rin ako,’ kaya hinahayaan ko na.” (She saw her siblings doing it and she told me one day she wants to join them, so I just let her).
Ruby’s brother, seven-year-old Bryan, proudly says in Ilocano, “I was taught to gather leaves with a stick only once when I was four. And it wasn’t difficult at all.” But he admits he has lazy moments when he would trade his tobacco stick for play time with other village boys.
When there’s school, the family plants tobacco on weekends so all the children can help out. “Sa halip na magbayad tayo ng iba, tayo-tayo na lang din para pambili na lang natin ng mga pangangailangan natin (Instead of paying somebody else to do the work for us, we could just do it ourselves especially during my children’s school break),” Imelda said.
Green Tobacco Sickness
The ill effects of smoking cigarettes—which are produced from tobacco leaves—are widely known, but very few are aware of other health risks from the manufacture of the product.
Children like Ruby who do not smoke tobacco or not regularly exposed to second-hand smoke because no one in their family is an active smoker are nevertheless at risk for Green Tobacco Sickness or nicotine poisoning.
The nicotine in moist tobacco leaves that enters the body through the skin can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and breathing difficulties. Between three to 17 hours after exposure, symptoms such as abdominal cramps, abnormal temperature, pallor, diarrhea, and fluctuations in heart or blood pressure are felt, and this can last from one to three days, says Dr. Maricar Limpin, Executive Director of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Alliance-Philippines.
“Many health care providers are unaware of GTS among children and adolescents, more so for the tobacco farmers themselves. It is very likely that the symptoms of affected persons are commonly mistaken as sign of fatigue. No research [has been] done on this yet,” Limpin adds.
Local farmers, said Avelino Dacanay of the Ilocos-based farmers’ group Solidarity of Peasants Against Exploitation (STOP-Exploitation), remain unaware of dermal nicotine poisoning. “Ako nga rin eh. Ang alam ko gutom lang ako kaya ako nahihilo (Farmers do not know what GTS is, or that it exists. I myself do not know what it is. When I was planting tobacco, I thought I was feeling dizzy because I was just hungry),” said Dacanay, who farmed tobacco for decades before shifting to corn.
Tobacco growers like the Feleo family back up Dacanay’s assertion. Asked whether any of her children had experienced the symptoms of GTS, Imelda said she has not observed bouts of nausea and fever among them.
“Minsan lang naman nagkakalagnat, pero normal lang naman iyon sa bata,” (They do catch fever sometimes, but that’s just normal with children) she says.
According to a study conducted by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in 2001, local farmers often confuse GTS symptoms with heat exhaustion or pesticide poisoning. An average field worker could be exposed to up to 600 milliliters of dew or rain on tobacco, the rough equivalent of the nicotine content of 36 cigarettes, the study said.
Citing a report from the National Statistics Office, the study found out that—like Ruby in her bare hands and feet—only one in five working children use safety gadgets of any kind. Because of this, children risk punctures from the task of gathering leaves, which is usually delegated to them.
Aside from GTS, there are other hazards involved in allowing children to help grow tobacco. Teenagers who apply fertilizer and insecticides on the crops are regularly exposed to toxic fumes and dust, while prolonged exposure to direct sunlight puts them at risk for skin inflammation, the study said.
Dr. Limpin said lack of awareness about GTS is the biggest hurdle against its prevention, but grinding poverty complicates the problem further. “Since the tobacco farmers have no other option except tobacco farming, considering that they do not receive any support to shift to an alternative crop, I do not think that they will abandon tobacco farming altogether,” Limpin said.
With the huge amount of work involved in tobacco farming, farmers are not likely to prevent their children from helping even if they knew the health risks, she adds. “Government must undertake intensive information dissemination campaign on this problem for them to even start thinking about this,” the doctor said.
GTS is an acute disease, but direct absorption of nicotine from tobacco leaves may be prevented by using protective gear. Yet, Limpin notes, “We know that the tobacco workers most likely do not wear any protective gear because they are unaware [of GTS].”
’That’s not child labor’
In addition to health risks, the issue of child labor has also stirred much debate in the industry, where many say the home safely shields the work of children because the parents are also involved in tobacco production.
“You cannot call it child labor,” asserts Efraim Dayap, a senior official at the National Tobacco Administration in Candon City, Ilocos Sur. “Karamihan sa amin ganyan. Lahat kami napag-aral ng magulang namin dahil sa tabako.” (Most of us grew up that way. All of us finished school because of tobacco farming).
“Sinasabi nila na may child labor sa tabako. Wala. Masaya pa nga ang mga bata ‘pag sila ay pagagawin ng ganoon, dahil may allowance silang 25 centavos sa bawat stick na matapos nila. Nakatulong pa sila sa pinansyal na problema ng pamilya nila (Others say there is child labor in tobacco farming, but that is not true. In fact, children are happy to work in tobacco farms because they earn 25 centavos for every stick they finish, and they are also able to help their families),” Dayap said.
Mayor Allen Singson of Candon City, which calls itself the Tobacco Capital of the Philippines, shares the same views.
“Siguro nga pwedeng i-consider iyong mga hazards, pero ito kasing tobacco as well as other products talagang family-oriented. Minsan bata pa lang nag-uumpisa iyong farmer (We can always consider the hazards, but tobacco, as well as other products, are family-oriented. Most farmers start out young),” he said.
Singson adds that the children often take over when their parents grow old, and generations of tobacco farmers have learned from the guidance of their forebears.
Among them is Ronald, 15, who quit school after the third grade and shifted to planting tobacco instead. Like him, his three other brothers also turned their back on education in favor of tobacco production.
While all three of his sisters are still in school, Ronald said he has no plans of pursuing further studies. “Ayaw ko na talaga (I’ve given up),” he said.
“This is the difficulty in engaging children early in the family livelihood. They begin to realize they don’t need to finish school in order to earn. Once this happens, it is not likely to stop,” said Ma. Elena Caraballo, Deputy Executive Director of the Council for the Welfare of Children.
“So there really is a need to reach out to these children, encourage them to finish at least high school and then take special training courses so they won’t be dependent on the trade. Time will come there will be no other option to stop it,” she added.
Based on a 2008 study conducted by the Department of Labor and Employment-Ilocos Region in Balaoan town in La Union, almost half of the children there are involved in activities that may be considered child labor. More than half—68 percent—are found in tobacco-growing families, with more boys than girls involved in the industry.
During the tobacco planting season, children younger than 15 have been found working almost three hours per day, while 15- to 17-year-olds worked for about four hours.
The study noted that almost 24 percent of the children are exposed to the worst forms of child labor: almost a fifth of 15- to 17-year-olds were found to be working more than 43 hours per week, two percent of children have sustained injuries or gotten sick because of work, and about 7 percent were regularly exposed to chemicals.
However, the same survey also found out that 60 percent of parents in the town considered it “good” and “normal” for children to work. The remaining 40 percent, meanwhile, pointed to financial reasons to justify the involvement of children in growing tobacco.
Caraballo explains the parents’ perspective this way: “Oftentimes in the Philippine context, because of the closeness of the family, the output of the parents is improved if the whole family is involved, even before the children are supposed to be working. These families usually have limited options so they engage all members in their livelihood.”
Children’s work vs. child labor
The DOLE’s Institute of Labor Studies makes a distinction between children’s work and child labor.
“Generally, the participation of children in domestic activities, or in efforts that do not produce goods or services, does not constitute child labor. Hence, undertaking household chores is not part of child labor but work in family-owned businesses is,” the ILS said in a report.
“Mendicancy is not child labor because it does not produce a social commodity. But debt-peonage, where children are made to work to pay off their parents’ debts, is child labor even if children receive no direct payments for their work. So are children’s self-employment activities,” the ILS report added.
The Labor Code provides allowances for non-hazardous labor among children below 15 years old as long as it does not interfere with the child’s schooling. The Child and Youth Welfare Code allows children of the same age to work under the direct supervision of the parent.
DOLE Region 1 Director Henry Jalbuena concedes that child labor exists in the tobacco industry in Ilocos, but he maintains that it does not involve grave abuse of children, which happens all too often in many industries.
“It is not an extreme form. In fact, these children are working with their parents. They are being supervised, only that they were removed from schools because of poverty,” he said. “Some of the parents would also like to see their children from time to time, and go with them to work rather than not seeing them at all.”
Tobacco control advocates, however, say it is precisely this family setup that makes matters worse.
“Mas matindi ang extent ng child labor, kasi tinitignan siya as normal (That is a worse form of child labor because it is considered normal). It is not recognized as a form of exploitation,” argues Limpin. “It’s the worst thing that can happen to a child. It is illegal, but it is not seen that way.”
Limpin says the unpaid labor that goes into every stick of tobacco leaves—just like what Ruby Feleo and her siblings do— is part and parcel of the tobacco farmer’s capital but this is never recognized by traders who buy their produce.
“Kung bibilangin natin ang dami ng nagtatrabaho sa sakahan ng tabako [na kadalasan ay ang buong pamilya], napakaliit ng kinikita at talagang lugi ang magsasaka (If all the labor spent for one season is quantified, farmers would come out shortchanged in the end),” Limpin says.
Alternative to tobacco
To curb child labor in the tobacco industry, the government needs to address the persistent poverty among farming communities in Ilocos, which are dependent on the cash crop and nothing more, she says.
“Kailangang itama ng gobyerno at mahanapan ng alternative livelihood ang mga tao doon para hindi dependent ang mga growers dito dahil sa mga health risks nito,” says Limpin. “It [needs] the political will to find a viable alternative. The buck really stops with the government.”
The Labor Department says it has been helping families find alternative livelihood through poultry-raising, but there is much that needs to be done.
“If we have to address child labor, you have to address poverty, as well as the consciousness of the community about child labor,” DOLE’s Jalbuena says. “Our goal is to eradicate child labor but if we cannot totally do it, at least we can minimize it.”
In 2009, the DOLE regional office sent 200 children to primary and secondary school, and 11 to college. The department also gave financial assistance to over 300 families in the region.
Options for children
Ardi and Ruby represent different sides of the tobacco industry’s socioeconomic toll on children.
“They are victims of this industry. On one hand, we see all the cigarette advertising taking its toll on a particular child without realizing it. There’s just too much easy access to tobacco that parents did not realize their child is already addicted,” Caraballo said.
In Ardi’s case, she says, “A child responds to cigarettes the way he would respond to food or a feeding bottle. We should blame no one but the parents themselves. He was hooked because he thought about it all along as food, and you cannot blame the child because he is so young to discern the effects of smoking.”
According to international media reports, the Indonesian toddler has cut down his daily cigarette consumption and has since undergone therapy.
“On the other hand, there’s Ruby who is actually just a toddler and is still trying to learn physical independence from her parents. These children may not see this as work but mere play. But for as long as this family remains dependent on only one kind of livelihood, they deprive the children of activities suitable for their age,” Caraballo said.
“There is the necessity to make other options available for these children than just having them breathe tobacco day in day out,” she concludes.
This story is also published at GMANews.TV, the news site I used to work for when I was writing this story along with two others that are yet to be published.
This is part of the Tobacco Control Media Project, a fellowship by Probe Media Foundation, Inc. and the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Philippines.
Thank you, Probe and FCAP, as well as my parents and Owen, who had in one way or another helped me put together the material I needed for my stories.
All photos are by Sherwin G. Ballesteros. The photographer has secured all his subjects’ verbal consent, including those of the minors and their parents. All the subjects photographed in this story were briefed that it was going to be published as a news story.