Wearing a T-shirt and faded jeans, Tony leans against a metal railing with a dozen bigger Philippine boys opposite a cafe-style pizza restaurant at a modern shopping center here. As a singer entertains the diners, he scans the tables of Filipinos and foreign tourists, looking for one who will beckon for him to sit down.

At 14, Tony is a male prostitute. He describes himself as a "call boy" and says he has been one for a year since running away from his home in a squatter area of a Manila suburb.

He is part of a growing trade in children, some as young as 9 and most of them boys. The children cater mainly to foreign visitors attracted by easy opportunities here to indulge in sexual practices punishable or socially ostracized at home. The trade has provoked cries of alarm and outrage in local newspapers lately, but authorities seem unable or unwilling to do much about it.

No one in the Philippine government was available to discuss the child prostitution, according to a spokeswoman at the government's press relations office.

The traffic in young flesh reflects extreme poverty and shortage of jobs in the Philippines, a nation of 50 million people whose economy has declined sharply in the past several years.

The practice also exists in Thailand and other Asian countries hit by hard times, but it seems particularly blatant here. Besides the capital, the problem has also surfaced in the town of Olongapo outside the huge American naval base on Subic Bay. Twelve girls there ranging in age from 9 to 14 were diagnosed as having venereal disease, and a U.S. chief petty officer has been accused in the case.

Some of the young prostitutes are Amerasians, the offspring of American fathers and Philippine mothers in this former U.S. colony that has had a nearly continuous American military presence for the past 80 years.

There are no reliable estimates of how many children are engaged in prostitution here, but some of the children say hundreds work in the capital and in the resort towns of Baguio, Puerto Galera and Pagsanjan.

Many of the child prostitutes are members of gangs that hold sway in the teeming slums and squatter shanty towns of Metro Manila, a sprawling urban area of about 7 million people.

The two main gangs are estimated to number about 5,000 children, many of them assigned to different tasks by gang leaders. Some shine shoes, shoplift or snatch purses, while others are pickpockets or prostitutes. Eight boys caught by police recently said they had been forced to steal by a modern-day Fagin, a 20-year-old member of a gang called Sigue-Sigue Sputnik that also reportedly runs protection rackets and dockyard pilfering operations.

One of the boys bore a tattoo of the gang's emblem on his hip.

Lately bands of government-sponsored vigilantes armed with staves and clubs have been making periodic sweeps of Manila's red-light district, euphemistically known here as the "tourist belt," to round up the child prostitutes. But those arrested are usually back on the streets a few days later.

One of those rounded up recently was a bright, lively, 16-year-old named Dana. A petite, fair-skinned girl with a pretty, childlike face and a disarming pout, she was sought after 32 arrested young prostitutes -- 25 boys and seven girls aged 9 to 18 -- identified her to police as their "mama-san," an intermediary who lined up customers for them, according to local newspaper accounts. The prostitutes said they were paid between 20 pesos and 100 pesos (about $2.50 to $12.50).

Police Sgt. Rey Crame, chief of the anti-organized crime unit, was quoted as saying Dana has been in and out of the Manila city jail for various offenses and sports on her buttocks the tattoo of her gang, called "Batang City Jail," meaning children of the city jail.

A few days after the 32 youths were caught, Dana was arrested and jailed for five days. Soon after her release, she reappeared in the red-light district, a bit more wary of vigilantes and police.

Interviewed in the company of a nun who lives in her slum, Dana denied she was a ringleader but admitted becoming a prostitute last year. She said that after an older friend enticed her into sniffing airplane glue, she was raped by three members of a gang in her slum.

"When my mother found out I had lost my virginity, she wanted to kill me," Dana said. "She hit me and she cried."

She said that her friend, nicknamed Baby, then began taking her around to foreigners. "They would pay Baby 200 pesos about $25 and she would give me 20 pesos," Dana said. "But I'm smarter now. I don't work for Baby anymore."

Dana was evasive about her parents -- she described her mother as a waitress in Olongapo -- and the reason for a row of scars across the inside of her right forearm above the wrist.

The nun from Dana's neighborhood, Sister Mary Annunciata, said the girl's mother almost certainly was a prostitute outside the Subic naval base and her father an American serviceman.

Sister Mary Annunciata has started schools for reformed prostitutes and unwed mothers in the provinces, but she seems somewhat overcome by the scope of the child trade here.

"We are becoming aware more and more of this problem," she said. "But there's not much we can do for these young call girls. We have nothing to offer them, nothing to equal what they earn." A member of the Good Shepherd Sisters who served her novitiate in Los Angeles, Sister Mary Annunciata has taken a vow of poverty and lives with several other nuns in a bare but tidy tin-roofed shack costing about $5 a month.

One of Dana's friends, a 15-year-old prostitute named Ruby, said she had been deserted as a child by her Philippine mother and her father, who she said was half American. She said she lived with her grandfather until she was 13, when she was raped by an uncle. She then ran away to Quezon Province, where she said she worked as a prostitute in a night club.

Now, home is sometimes a kindly old woman's small, one-room squatter shack in which as many as seven people sleep on cardboard "mattresses." The ceiling is also of cardboard, serving as crude insulation under the tin roof. Crucifixes, pictures of the Virgin Mary and other religious objects adorn a shelf along one wall.

The old woman, a diabetic whose left leg has been amputated, mildly scolded Dana when she, the nun and two visitors came to the shack recently. "She hardly comes home," the woman said, "and when she does, she's the boss."

Tony, the "call boy" at the shopping mall, said "friends" led him into prostitution. He said he left home because his father would not work. Now, he said, he alone supports his mother and seven younger brothers and sisters. In a good week, he said, he can earn about $87.50, a substantial sum for a young Filipino.

His customers are tourists, "mostly Germans," Tony said. Indeed, several of the foreigners seen sitting at the pizza parlor's tables with young boys appeared to be European, including one young blond couple. However, it was evident that others in the market included Arabs, Americans and Filipinos.

Standing 4 feet 4 and weighing about 80 pounds, Tony looks younger than his years. But his eyes have the gaze of someone much older. His boyish appearance is apparently part of his attraction, for he says he does this work strictly for the money. He says he is not a homosexual himself.

When he earns enough money, Tony says, he plans to finish high school and find another job. Meanwhile, he makes his home in Luneta Park, sleeping on the ground along with scores of other street urchins and down-and-out Filipinos.

What does he do during the stormy weather of the current monsoon season?

"If it rains, we don't sleep," he says simply.