One out of every eight children in Mexico currently works. More specifically, almost 4 million out of the 29 million children between the ages of five and 17 are involved in child labor according to the most recent official figures. Nevertheless, the statistics give reason for hope: Mexico’s rate of child labor is below the average of the Latin American countries. Mexico’s direct neighbors, Guatemala and Belize, are struggling tremendously, with 21 per cent and 40 per cent of their children working respectively, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
In fact, Mexico has made great progress in the past decade. In November 1989, the United Nations General Assembly approved the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A year later, the Mexican State ratified the Convention and as a consequence started working towards improving children’s rights. Besides the issue of child labor, malnutrition and infant mortality have been reduced significantly and primary school education is now guaranteed for almost every child.
Of the total number of child workers in the country today, the majority are aged between 14 and 17. Still, there are 1.1 million children between five and 13 years old who are forced to work.
Mexico’s enormous social, economic and demographic diversity is reflected in the manifestations of child labor. About seven out of ten child workers in Mexico live in rural areas, while three out of ten live in cities. Accordingly, almost a third of the children work in the farming and livestock sectors (31 per cent), followed by commerce (25 per cent), services (24 per cent), manufacturing (14 per cent) and construction (6 per cent).
While child labor occurs nationwide, 24 per cent of it takes place in just three states: The State of Mexico, Jalisco and Puebla. In fact, every fifth child in the state of Puebla is forced to work, according to UNICEF.
Walking across the main market square in the city of Puebla, these numbers are hard to believe. The beautiful, colonial city seems like an oasis with no problems, compared to many cities in states like Oaxaca and Chiapas, where poverty is high, especially among the many indigenous people. However, Puebla’s city center doesn’t paint the entire picture.
No time for homework
Just ten minutes down the market square on a street corner of Calle 5 de Mayo, a street filled with shoppers and tourists, a boy doesn’t care much for statistics. His name is Axel, he is nine years old and wears a Spiderman t-shirt. His face shows a few marks and scars, his expression is rather emotionless.
He sits on a small wooden chair next to a plastic table that is covered with bags and cups containing different kinds of potato chips, which he sells for ten Pesos each. Once a customer has made his choice, Axel squeezes a lemon onto the chips and adds salt and salsas. Being half as tall as some of his customers, he sometimes resorts to his toes when adding the salsas or handing out change. Still, he acts in a practiced manner.
The young boy goes to school, he says, from 9 am to 1 pm. Then, he goes to work. Usually, his older sister is with him, but today Axel is on his own. His parents come to pick him up between 8 pm and 9 pm. At home, he takes a shower, eats dinner and then goes to bed, gathering strength for the next 12-hour day.
Axel’s father and siblings all work on the street, the family has stands across the city. His mother stays at home, she is the one who counts the money at the end of the day. The family lives in a dwelling not far from the street corner where Axel works. He, his parents and a total of 13 siblings and cousins live under the same roof.
It doesn’t bother him that he has to work, says Axel, but he would rather keep it from his schoolmates. They once laughed at him, because they saw him working in the street. He remembers the instance vividly. His teacher also knows about Axel’s after-school activities. She gets angry with him at times, because all too often he doesn’t do his homework.
A change of mentality
It is a vicious circle: Many child workers do not get the chance to attend school at all. In cases like Axel’s, academic performance suffers under the many hours consumed by work. Poor education and high drop-out rates are the result. Thus, the victims of child labor are unlikely to ever escape poverty.
In Mexico, most children now at least attend primary and secondary school. The enrollment rate among children aged five to 17 years is around 90 per cent, which means that nine out of ten children attend school. Among child workers, the numbers are considerably worse: Four out of ten children who work never get to see a classroom from the inside.
Of course child labor is, in theory, illegal in Mexico. Article 123 of the Mexican Constitution prohibits use of the labor of anyone under the age of 14 and limits the working day for children between the ages of 14 and 16 to six hours. Although these basic regulations exist, Mexico is the only Latin American country that has yet to ratify the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 138 on the minimum working age. According to Mexican law, the minimum working age is 14, one year younger than that recommended by the ILO.
A bigger issue than gaps in the legislation, however, is the mentality towards child labor. Those who send their own children to work often turn a blind eye to the damage of the children’s development. Many do not consider child labor a violation of children’s rights, but see it as beneficial and unavoidable. Even among those who aren’t involved directly themselves, many do not consider its consequences. “There is nothing wrong with a child that helps out with expenses” seems to be a common idea. But as long as society doesn’t condemn child labor, significant change is unlikely to happen.
Helping out Mom
A few blocks west of Axel’s potato chips stand, cars and busses slowly try to find their way through a narrow street that doubles as a food market. Vendors offer fish, meat, cheese and vegetables on both sides of the street, leaving just enough space for the surrounding stores to open their doors.
Somewhere in between the men and women trading goods, a small girl with large, dark eyes sits on an old bucket. She is six years old, her name is Jacqueline.
She isn’t alone, her mother is standing next to her. Jacqueline has been helping her mother sell vegetables for about a year now. Despite her young age, she answers customer questions and hands out the change, which she keeps inside the large pockets of her apron.
Like Axel, she goes to school in the morning. Right afterwards she accompanies her mother to her job, where she spends the rest of the day. Jacqueline is the youngest of eight children, some of them are already married, three still go to school. “No husband”, says her mother without further clarification. Expenses are high, she says, and there was a 500 Pesos registration fee for school, per child.
Seeing Jacqueline and her mother work together, hand in hand, chatting with the neighboring vendors, it is easy to understand why this kind of child labor is often considered normal or harmless. Compared to the many children all over the world who work under dangerous and hazardous conditions, are forced to sell drugs or prostitute themselves, Jacqueline’s way of “helping out Mom” doesn’t seem overly bad. Yet, being six years old, she already acts like an adult. For her there is no time for playing, being in a sports team or doing homework for school.
As UNICEF points out in their 2010 report “The Rights of Children and Adolescents in Mexico: A Present Day Agenda”, Mexico is making progress in all areas of children’s rights. Social spending has increased constantly in recent years and widespread coverage of primary schooling ensures at least a basic education for most children.
At the same time, child labor, whether on the street, in factories, on farms or elsewhere, is still common and widely socially accepted. There are currently various federal programs as well as initiatives by non-government organizations that seek to reduce child labor. Nevertheless, experts repeatedly point out that in order to eradicate child labor completely, change has to take place on a structural level. When and how this change will take place is yet unclear.
Axel, Jacqueline and the almost 4 million children with similar stories are unlikely to develop to their full potential and escape poverty if they are deprived of their childhoods. They, like everyone, have dreams. Axel wants to become a firefighter, Jacqueline a doctor.
Photos: Simon Ruf