The Philippines context
“In the past, we only had rain sometimes, on the expected time of the year…there were very few typhoons. Now, a typhoon happens every month.”- Filipino community member
For eight years, the Philippines has been ranked as a Tier 1 country in the US Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, a testimony of the Filipino government’s efforts to address exploitation among its nationals. However, climate change has emerged as one of the biggest new challenges for the Philippines on many levels. According to the Global Climate Risk Index, the Philippines ranks 4th on the list of countries most at risk of adverse effects due to climate change. Extreme weather events connected to climate change, such as typhoons and heavy rainfalls, are increasingly common in the country. As noted by local community members, “in the past, we only had rain sometimes, on the expected time of the year…there were very few typhoons. Now, a typhoon happens every month.” But how do climate change and human trafficking intersect in the Philippines?
Vulnerabilities among climate change-affected communities
“[when] typhoons come, we will not be able to fish. So, we really will not earn anything. If we can’t go to sea, we don’t have earnings.” – fisherman from Eastern Visayas
Free the Slaves’ investigation focused on the regions of Eastern Visayas and Caraga and found these communities lack adequate preparation and recovery strategies, leading to increased conditions of vulnerability to human trafficking. Individuals whose livelihoods depend on the environment (e.g. farmers) and individuals whose economic activities require viable infrastructure (e.g. shop owners) found themselves in economic uncertainty when disaster struck. A fisherman from Eastern Visayas said, “[when] typhoons come, we will not be able to fish. So, we really will not earn anything. If we can’t go to sea, we don’t have earnings.” Owners of local sari-sari (convenience) stores also reported being forced to close up shop due to damage to the store and/or the merchandise. Losing their source of income with no viable or sustainable alternative led to people being displaced and forced to migrate, which increases their vulnerability to human trafficking.
The adverse effects of climate change also undermined food security and health. Following extreme weather events, one community member said “you can’t find food because you can’t go to work. It’s really difficult to find a source of water here, especially for drinking.” These same disasters triggered disease outbreaks as well as short-term and long- term health complications in addition to the fear, trauma, and anxiety experienced after an extreme weather event. Extreme weather linked to climate change also damaged education facilities and triggered diseases and displacement, leaving children unable to attend school. Education-related costs, like school fees, supplies, and uniforms become more challenging due to loss of income. On top of that, Eastern Visasyas and Caraga schools were often turned into evacuation centers, which prevented their use as educational institutions for weeks and even months.
Exploitation among climate change-affected communities
“Some of our girls, their families are farmers. […] And then their farms were destroyed by the typhoon so the daughter will be the one trying to find a job, and without knowing, she will be at risk of [sex] trafficking.” – Local resident
All these climate change-related vulnerabilities contributed to a heightened risk of modern slavery and labor trafficking in Eastern Visayas and Caraga. Forced labor and labor exploitation were found across a variety of industries including manufacturing, construction, and stream gold mining. Informal laborers who were driven into the construction sector by the lack of alternatives after the typhoon struck said they were employed for inordinately long hours, denied contracts, paid irregularly, and denied protective equipment.
Labor exploitation resulting from the negative impacts of climate change was also found for domestic workers. Filipino women were forced to migrate to Cebu, Manila, or the Gulf countries to find new sources of income due to the loss of their traditional income channels. A survivor of labor trafficking told us that she moved to Manila after being approached by a recruitment agency with the promise of a good job in the capital, but “when we got there, I felt like we were imprisoned. […] there were already many others, more than fifty women. We had cellphones but our female boss took them.” The mother of a migrant domestic worker similarly told us the ordeal of her daughter, who after migrating to Saudi Arabia following the typhoon called to say “she felt like she was in prison in the big house.”
Child labor also saw an uptick as children who came from families that lost their regular source of income due to sudden-onset and slow-onset environmental events were forced to work to help support their families. Child labor was found in mining, construction, agriculture, and manufacturing with children employed for long hours, paid little, and exposed to hazardous working conditions. School drop-out goes hand in hand with child labor with one parent saying her 12-year-old son “worked until the evening carrying sand and gold mining. […] Now, he no longer goes to school. He just wants to work.” A spirit of community support known as bayanihan is prevalent at times of hardship in the Philippines and most cases of child labor in the two surveyed regions tended to be accepted by community members as an inevitable coping strategy and were not reported to the authorities. As noted by a barangay (smallest administrative unit) official, “it is accepted in the community of the child […] it’s part of the culture that the children should also do labor for their parents, especially if they are financially struggling.”
Online sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) was also reported among poor Filipino families that lost their source of income and were desperate to find ways to survive. Some Filipino parents feel that if an activity occurs online, is not a crime and is not harmful, opening the door for OSEC. In this “family-based crime” perpetrators were usually the victims’ parents or relatives and engaged in this form of exploitation due to the prospect of making a lot of money in little time. An increase in sex trafficking more broadly was also observed, with women from poor farming families in Eastern Visayas and Caraga being forced to relocate to urban areas due to disruption in their income. Most were lured with false promises of decent and legitimate jobs, only to find themselves sexually exploited in bars, hotels, restaurants, and brothels. “Some of our girls, their families are farmers. […] And then their farms were destroyed by the typhoon so the daughter will be the one trying to find a job, and without knowing, she will be at risk of [sex] trafficking.” said one local resident.
Following sudden onset disaster events caused by climate change, our study found that the government needs to improve the quantity and quality of assistance available to affected communities and distribute it in an equitable, timely way. The Filipino government also needs to embrace a whole-of-government approach and bake in an awareness of human trafficking vulnerabilities to all development programs and proposed climate change solutions.
Skills development workshops are needed to prepare people to work in non-climate-sensitive sectors and to use climate-smart agricultural practices like beekeeping, which helps mangroves grow into a barrier against floods. More also needs to be done to support communities in diversifying their livelihood activities and provide multiple sources of income. Community leaders in Eastern Visayas and Caraga also need to capitalize on their influence and condemn harmful cultural norms that prevail in hazard-affected communities, like the acceptance of child labor. More should be done to educate families on the harmful consequences of child labor and to find and provide alternative coping strategies.
Read more about the intersection of climate change and human trafficking in the Philippines regions of Eastern Visayas and Caraga in the full report by Free the Slaves here.
This blog post is by Marta Furlan a Research Officer at Free the Slaves and is based on research done by Free the Slaves and JPIC-IDC. See: M. Furlan, L. Rosado, Human Trafficking and Climate Change in the Philippines: Understanding Intersections and Strengthening Responses in the Philippines (Free the Slaves: Washington D.C., 2023)