The new trade agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico (T-MEC) that entered into force on July 1 incorporates an article for the eradication of forced or compulsory labor, both children and adults, in such a way that if one of these countries detects any merchandise originating from these practices, it must prevent their importation and penalties are established. This matter was not mentioned in the previous trade agreements signed and at first glance it represents, on paper, an advance that the experts welcome. However, some organizations for the defense of children consulted also show this concern: if child labor is persecuted without implementing protection measures for children and adolescents, as well as a way out of poverty for their families, they will seek other ways to continue working and they will be more dangerous and slaves. The holes left by the state, they say, will be filled by organized crime.
“A good part of the disappearances of children and young people that are registered in Mexico are related to slave labor in the miners, in the planting of marijuana, in clandestine laboratories. In the case of girls and adolescents, it has to do with sexual exploitation ”, says Juan Martín Pérez, executive director of the Network for the Rights of the Child in Mexico (Redim). But there is a lot of child labor linked to poverty and it occurs in the family or community sphere and that is where there is a risk, he says, that their persecution, instead of combating it with social policies, “will lead them to dangerous options.” “That has happened on other occasions,” says Martín Pérez.
The next element to take into account is the long looming crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic, which foresees a large increase in poverty throughout the country. “This crisis will translate into more precarious, informal work, less income and school dropouts. Child labor is going to emerge, it will not be so visible but it will be evident in rural areas ”, adds the director of Redim.
In Mexico, where employment is prohibited before the age of 15, there are 3.2 million people between the ages of five and 17 doing what international organizations describe as child labor. It represents 11% of the population of these ages. 6.4% are employed in occupations not permitted by the agreements signed and 4% are engaged in domestic work that is not appropriate for their age, due to performance or intensive hours. There is a percentage that performs both tasks. These data published in 2017 by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi) are the latest known. The austerity policy imposed by the current government ended with 14 polls, one of them on child labor. “We were able to get the United States Department of Labor to finance it and it was prepared in 2019, but we still do not have the results,” continues Martín Pérez.
Nancy Ramírez, the director of Political Advocacy at Save the Children, agrees that “the private sector will cancel out child labor, because someone who worked in the sale, for example, could end up in the hands of criminal organizations.” But he thinks that the trade agreement is also “a way that obliges exporters to adapt their labor policies to human rights, both in children and in adults, and to detect it in their production chains.” Doesn’t a businessman know which hands make the clothes, pick the fruit or stick the soles of the shoes they sell with toxic products? “Not always”, says Ramírez, and gives as an example the following: “In the textile industry there is a lot of work that takes place in homes where whole boxes of shirts arrive to have the threads cut after they are made, to name one case. . And that usually goes to the weight, the more shirts they give out, the more money they receive. Who knows how many children and how many hours work in those houses ”, he says.
The Government is already working to design mechanisms that allow entrepreneurs to identify that their production is made in accordance with the requirements now imposed by the T-MEC and to grant a distinctive when those conditions are met. “To begin with, that they recognize child labor, forced labor,” continues Ramírez.
One of the organizations that works on the design of standards that serve companies to adapt their statutes and labor policies is the International Horticultural Alliance for the Promotion of Social Responsibility (Ahifores), which has its own quality certificates. They have shared their strategy with the Mexican Government and the United States Department of Labor, “who have endorsed that the content is in accordance with international laws and standards.” “We have recently presented our guide, focused on agricultural companies,” says Luz María Chombo, Ahifores Certification Manager. These guides have already been shown in various states of the country and there are other productive sectors that are requesting their own developments for their activities. “We are offering a lot of virtual courses, the way we can do it now,” explains Chombo.
The socioeconomic structure that Mexico presents is not the healthiest in terms of child welfare, with half of the population mired in poverty or severe poverty. Unicef puts data on what is clearly visible on the street. One in two boys, girls or adolescents lives without the basics for their development, a situation that fully affects indigenous communities, where nine out of 10 children suffer from it. More than four million are out of school and half of the Mexican child population manifests chronic malnutrition. 1% between the ages of 10 and 17 have suffered assaults at home.
Nayarit has the highest rate of child labor in Mexico, with 19.7% of the population of those ages. Zacatecas, Campeche, Tabasco, Colima, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Puebla are in a similar situation. At the bottom of the table are Querétaro (5.3%), Mexico City, Baja California, Aguascalientes and Nuevo León.
Racism in Mexico condemns indigenous areas to greater poverty, therefore, more child labor. But the organizations that work on the ground qualify these concepts: “In these communities, work is a skill for life, it is not only an activity of economic performance, but associated with knowledge and family collaboration, they are social processes”, says Jennifer Haza, director of the Melel Xojobal organization in Chiapas, which develops educational, social and human rights projects with the school population. “About 90% attend school, but half of adolescents do not finish high school [obligatoria]”, He says. School is far from free for a family whose nutrition is already precarious. “Registration fees, uniform, supplies, school cafeteria, remodeling are paid,” says Haza.
The covid-19 epidemic had Ángela Méndez’s family without working for a whole month. They closed the craft stall that they assemble and disassemble every day in a plaza in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a very touristy town in Chiapas. “We don’t have savings, I even owed some money that they finance me when I buy the goods that I sell, and then I pay. So we had tortillas, pure beans and vegetables, to save money ”, he smiles. Thus, sometimes with more scarcity and other times more abundance, Mrs. Méndez has helped her three children. All have collaborated with the work of the market, but they have not abandoned their studies. The oldest is going to start his math career. The little one is still very young. And Yesenia Anahí N. Méndez, about to turn 12 years old, has just finished primary school. As in so many poor areas, her role model is the teacher and that is what she wants to be when she grows up. But if they mention other professions to him, he also smiles with pleasure.
On a normal day they pick up the post with all their irons around nine in the morning and at that same time of night they are arriving home; If they do a good day, they will have earned between 300 and 500 pesos (14 and 23 dollars), but the pandemic has hit tourism. “Nobody was prepared for this,” says Angela, who grew up in a very humble family, selling popcorn on the streets and enduring, for it, the ridicule of her schoolmates. She has worked hard for her children to have a better life.
During the coronavirus months, Yesenia has studied at home with the help of teachers, but these are strange times that children take almost like vacations: “I help at the post to bring money to eat, from 10 in the morning to 8 in the afternoon, and Also at home, like my brothers, we mop, we make the bed, we wash the dishes, ”says the girl. She is happy in the position, she watches people go by, she negotiates with them, she plays shops. “At home you get bored,” he confesses.
That is family work, sometimes hard for children, sometimes it takes them away from school or takes them out of it too early, but governments know that if not, poverty will be even greater. “Child labor is part of family economies, the fact that it is not recognized is a trap, it is tolerated, because it reduces the economic impact for families, even if the law prohibits it,” says Juan Martín Pérez, from Redim. And again he expresses his fear that the T-MEC may also affect these cases that are sticking their heads as they can. “It is the governments that must give an answer to this, but there are no protection devices beyond the mockery of scholarships of 45 dollars a month. I do not see political will in the federal government ”, he adds.
Along the same lines, Save the Children works so that these children, who in Mexico number in the millions, “have a decent job and do not abandon their school attendance.” That is the reality of the poorest households, and the paper requirements established by the T-MEC are quite another.
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