Going to the extreme for an income is not uncommon for people living in poverty. From elephant keepers to rock breakers, take a look at how five parents go the extra mile to provide for their loved ones.

1. Elephant Keeping

5 Extreme Jobs the Poor Do to Support their Families

Job description: For centuries, the Karen people of Southeast Asia have been renowned for ‘mahout’ or elephant keeping. “This tradition has been passed down from generation to generation,” says Pasawaha, a father of five.

“Our elephant’s name is Lulu. She’s seven years old.”

There is a deep relational bond between keeper and elephant; Pasawaha takes care of Lulu like one of his children. His tasks involve feeding Lulu, monitoring skin irritations, ensuring she bathes, keeps away from pesticides and gets health checks and vaccinations from the vet.

History: In South East Asian history, keepers and their elephants played an important part in warfare. Nowadays most ‘mahouts’ earn a living from tourism.

Pasawaha’s work is ecotourism supporting local conservation efforts. Many of the visitors he introduces Lulu to are zoologists, people studying Karen language and culture, and those observing local wildlife.

The role of elephant keeper is passed down through fathers or sons, along with ownership of the family’s elephant. Pasawah’s family has a solemn duty of stewardship for Lulu and when he passes away, her care will fall to one of his sons.

Location: Thailand

Benefits: Spending time with one of the world’s most beautiful creatures. Lulu is considered a valued family member.

“I learnt about elephants from a young age,” says Tanakrid, Pasawaha’s eldest son.

“First by watching our father, then by following him. It has become my intuition to know how to treat elephants.”

Challenges: Although elephant keeping is a treasured cultural tradition, it doesn’t provide enough income to support a family.

Income: Pasawaha’s wages are low because he refuses to make Lulu participate in tourist shows. He attempts to top up his earnings by providing temporary care for other owners’ elephants and hosting tours for those learning about Asian elephants but this only provides the family with an additional A$1.40 a day.

5 Extreme Jobs the Poor Do to Support their Families

Opportunities for the next generation: Although Pasawaha’s youngest son Santong loves spending time with Lulu, he is determined to make the most of the education provided by his Compassion child sponsorship. “I love riding the elephant in the fields and feeding her food,” he says.

Pasawah wants his son to grow up with an understanding of, and respect for, Karen customs. He also wants Santong to gain a good education.

“I’m getting older, so it’s my wish that one of my sons will take care of the elephant. But if Santong desires to pursue higher education, I definitely support him,” says Pasawah.

2. Coconut harvesting

5 Extreme Jobs the Poor Do to Support their Families

Job description: Climbing coconut palm trees up to 30 metres tall barefoot without any safety equipment to harvest coconuts with a machete.

Since his father left the family, 30-year-old Ronal relies on coconut harvesting as his sole source of income.

Location: Tahuna, capital of the Sangihe Islands, Indonesia

Benefits: On a good day, Ronal is hired by two different coconut farm owners, and he earns double income. This extreme job keeps Ronal fit—in a day he can climb 20-30 trees, spending about 25 minutes working up a single tree.

Challenges: Ronal’s income is determined by factors completely out of his control. Every day he walks four kilometres to the coconut farm to ask if there is work available for the day. If there is no demand, Ronal is left with no income.

His income is also dependent on the seasons and weather. There is typically a coconut harvest every three months. However, last year there was only one harvest following an exceptionally long dry season.

There are serious risks associated with coconut tree climbing. Workers face the risk of daily accidents, the worst being a fatal fall to the ground.

“Once I injured my left hand with the machete when I was trying to cut a coconut tree branch. I’m thankful to God that I have never had another incident like that and that I have never fallen from a tree,” says Ronal.

Income: For this difficult, extremely risky work, Ronal only earns about AU$20 (200,000 Indonesian Rupiah) per month.

5 Extreme Jobs the Poor Do to Support their Families

Opportunities for the next generation: Ronal is determined that his younger brother Amigel is given opportunities beyond coconut harvesting.

“I can see that my brother learns many good things at the [Compassion] project,” says Ronal.

“Besides that, he also receives support for his school fees and books. So we don’t need to spend the money I earn on those things. My mother can use my earnings to buy fish, rice and vegetables for us.”

“I have big hope for my little brother. I want him to have a successful life in the future and a better job than mine. I pray that one day, he can pursue his dream to be a soldier.”

3. Rock breaking

5 Extreme Jobs the Poor Do to Support their Families

Job description: Using a mallet to crush rocks into gravel to sell to businesses.

Yulius and Hartini make their living by rock breaking. These courageous grandparents work from 7am-6pm to earn enough income to support their granddaughter, Kasi.

Location: Tahuna, the capital city of the Sangihe Islands group in Indonesia

Benefits: There is little upside to this incredibly tough job.

Challenges: Yulius and Hartini have to work through the heat of the day. They spend hours pounding stones gathered from the beach near their home with a small wooden hammer. The work is not only exhausting—it’s hazardous. To reduce the risk of hitting their fingers with the hammer, 53-year-old Yulius wears a rubber ring. Without protective eyewear, the couple frequently suffer from stone particles landing in their eyes. Fine dust fills the air with each blow from the hammer. Some of it finds its way into Yulius and Hartini’s lungs.

“The first year I was a stone breaker, my fingers and eyes were often hurt. But over time, I have gotten used to it,” says Yulius.

5 Extreme Jobs the Poor Do to Support their Families

Income: Despite the difficult and tedious nature of the work, rock breakers in Yulius’ community only receive A$25 (250,000 Indonesian Rupiah) for 25 sacks of pebbles. They have to survive on this income for a month.

Opportunities for the next generation: Kasi is a Compassion sponsored child, which lifts a big burden for her grandparents.

“I’m glad that my granddaughter has a sponsor who is willing to support her,” says Yulius.

“My family doesn’t have money to see the doctor, but at the Compassion centre, my granddaughter gets medical checkups for free. In this way, her sponsor really helps her and our family. I know Kasi is happy to be registered in the Compassion program and that makes me happy, too.”

“Our hope is that in the future, our assisted children will have safer, better jobs than their parents and older siblings,” Karel Papia, director of Kasi’s Compassion project.

“They have the opportunity to achieve a higher education level through their sponsors’ support.”

4. Pa-aling fishing

5 Extreme Jobs the Poor Do to Support their Families

Job description: Pa-aling is an extreme method of deep-sea spearfishing. It has been described by the Philippine government as one of the most dangerous of all fishing methods. A pa-aling fisherman risks their life diving 65-100 feet into open waters to catch fish. They need to stay underwater for up to two hours at a time, with only a regular plastic hose attached to a compressor breathing apparatus.

35-year-old Elmera relies on pa-aling fishing to provide for his family. One day he hopes to find an alternative profession, but until then, “I will work hard for the sake of my family,” he says.

History: Pa-aling is common practice in several Philippine island villages. It’s been dubbed by the government and international human rights groups as “one of the most dangerous of all fishing methods”.

Location: Hilongos, a fishing town on the Philippine island of Leyte

Benefits: Elmera doesn’t go to sea alone. He always goes fishing with three or four friends so they can try and keep each other safe.

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Challenges: Every night Elmer risks his life, diving only using a self-made harpoon and homemade flippers to help him swim. He wears long clothing to protect himself against jellyfish stings and other hazards. There is no rescue team if anything goes wrong, and Elmer relies on a single torch to guide himself.

“It is very risky and scary, no doubt,” says Elma, Elmer’s wife.

“I always fear for my husband’s life every time he goes because I know that the waters in this part of the country are very rough and there are whirlpools in the middle of the sea.”

Income: Elmera and his friends typically catch 10 kilos of fish. Splitting the proceeds amongst themselves, they typically earn around A$11. This will feed their families for a couple of days.

5 Extreme Jobs the Poor Do to Support their Families

Opportunities for the next generation: Elmera and Elma are determined their children will have the opportunity to earn a living safely. Their daughter, 12-year-old Elmera Serenio wants to be an accountant when she grows up.

“We support Elmera in whatever she hopes to accomplish,” says Elmer.

“We know she studies hard, and thanks to the Compassion project and [her] sponsor, we can be sure that she has a good chance of getting to college, finishing her studies and becoming an accountant. For this, we are thankful to Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program and to her sponsor.”

5. Rice scavenging

5 Extreme Jobs the Poor Do to Support their Families

Job description: Single dad Budrai is one of many labourers in his community who work on local rice farms. Every day he wakes before dawn. Armed with a hoe, crowbar and sack, he sets out searching for new holes created by rats overnight. He finds stashed stalks of ripened rice in the holes and takes the small collection home to feed his two teenage children, Salina and Subhas.

Location: Rural Bangladesh

Benefits: Budrai is one of many farm labourers in his village who don’t own land. Although he lives at the mercy of rice field owners, they do allow him to live on their property in exchange for low-wage work.

Challenges: As well as being back-breaking, the work is seasonal, leaving labourers with no income for long periods. Plus, as more farm owners invest in modern equipment such as tractors, the demand for manual labour is shrinking. Budrai also faces great social stigma in his community for being a rice scavenger.

Income: The average income of a labourer during the farming season is A$5 (300 Bangladeshi Taka) per day for men. For women who do the same work, the pay is less: A$3.35 (200 Bangladeshi Taka) daily. These wages typically enable a family to eat two meals a day.

Opportunities for the next generation: Budrai is proud that his teenage children are part of the local Compassion project.

“They go to the centre the same as other children,” says Budrai. “My daughter also gets treated equally as my son.”

“When my wife passed away, I couldn’t think of any other options than making my two children work along with me on the farms or collecting grains of rice from rat holes.

Registering them into the [Compassion] centre and its Child Sponsorship Program was the best decision I have made in my life, to see a better future with the help of the church.

I am confident now that my children will never go hungry.”


No one should have to risk their life to earn a living. Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program gives children the opportunities needed to unlock a different future. Learn more about sponsoring a child and how you can give a hope more powerful than poverty.

Words by Becca Stanley

Field Reporting and photos by Piyamary Shinoda, Vera Aurima, Edwin Estioko and J. Sangma

A version of this article was originally published on the Compassion UK blog

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