In a press conference Thursday to mark World Day against Child Labor, Vic Magallanes, Davao coordinator of the International Labor Organization's IPEC component, said the agricultural sector tops the four areas considered as "high risk" for child labor in the region.
The other sectors are mining, domestic work, and commercial sex.
The press conference was organized by the National Coalition against Child Labor to increase awareness towards the problem considered by the ILO as “alarming."
Magallanes used figures from recipient communities of IPEC's intervention programs which showed that the biggest number comes from the sugarcane industry at 2,683 out of 4,474 workers in the program in the region.
Southeastern Mindanao comprises the three Davao provinces, Compostela Valley and the cities therein.
Next to sugarcane came mining with 1,032 children employed, commercially and sexually exploited children at 405, and child in domestic work at 354.
IPEC wants to get the real number of child laborers in the region as well as look deeper into their situation.
Magallanes said the biggest problem behind child labor is poverty with parents forced to drag their children to work.
What makes it worse, Magallanes said, is that the children are not in the payroll due to the "pakyaw" (wholesale) payment scheme commonly used in the rural areas.
Eliza Apit, unit director of the Kamalayan Development Foundation which handled the program's component of the children working in sugarcane plantations in Kiblawan, Davao del Sur said the parents should not be blamed entirely.
She said more than 50 percent of child laborers can be traced to agricultural plantations.
She quoted parents as saying they could keep their children from working if only the minimum wage in the agricultural sector were followed.
As of last year, the minimum wage rate in the region's agricultural areas was pegged at P212 and P191 a day in plantation and non-plantation areas. But Apit said the workers in their area receive only P70 to P80 daily wage.
She said workers are also calling for a five to six-day work week instead of three days because a three-day pay is not enough to meet the basic needs.
Apit said the parents are working in plantations despite the conditions because they have no land to till. She said workers are clamoring for genuine agrarian reform which is a strategic solution to child labor in agriculture areas.
"The root cause of child labor in agricultural areas is landlessness," said Anita Morales, executive director of another NGO working with child laborers in sugarcane plantations.
Ponciano Ligutom, Department of Labor and Employment regional director, said the problem involves more than a "legal battle" as it is also economic, social and a cultural concern that requires a holistic solution.
He said the task involves a wide-ranging multi-sectoral effort but acknowledged the local government units' role is focal.
Representatives of non-government organizations said that in areas where LGUs employ child protection legislation and mechanisms, the number of child labor cases has decreased.
Under the IPEC intervention, child laborers are given an alternative learning system of receiving instructions on basic skills such as literacy.