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U.S. News & World Report, 09/01/97, Vol. 123 Issue 8, p40, 2p, 2c


NAFTA aims at curbing child labor, but it's rampant south of The border Along Mexico's northwest coast, Sinaloa State is lush with plantings of tomato, eggplant, and corn. Many of the vegetables and fruits grown there are destined for dinner tables across the United States. Indeed, the mountain-fringed region closely resembles rural California. But one thing is glaringly different: Many of the farm workers are children.

Their presence could draw the green fields of Sinaloa into the next trade dispute between the United States and Mexico. Under the framework of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a country that exploits child labor could face millions of dollars in fines not to mention severe public relations damage. Mexico is the only developing country in NAFTA, which has a labor side agreement that makes failure to enforce child labor laws a punishable offense. Yet working children in Mexico have attracted little attention.

That may be about to change. American labor unions and consumer activists have attacked child labor elsewhere through boycotts, pressure for corporate codes of conduct, and campaigns to affix labels on products not made by children. Last year, they exposed child labor at Central American and South Asian makers of clothing, rugs, and sporting gear, some sold under the names of celebrities like talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford.

Now the focus may be shifting to Mexico. Congress this fall will consider giving President Clinton "fast-track" authority to negotiate an expansion of NAFTA throughout the Americas. Labor unions and others plan to use the debate to voice complaints about the treaty.

Some Florida farmers and agricultural suppliers, for instance, are upset at having to compete against Mexican growers, who don't face tough or strictly enforced regulations on labor and the environment. The Fort Lauderdale-based Florida Farmers and Suppliers Coalition has sent most members of Congress a videotape comparing U.S. and Mexican farm practices. The group contends that Mexican use of contaminated water, pesticides banned in the United States, and children as laborers threatens consumers' health and U.S. jobs. "We are going to be doing what we can to make [Mexican child labor] part of the debate," promises Steve Trossman of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, whose truckers and food packers fear job losses from Mexican competition.

On the job. The Mexican government says it is taking economic and educational measures to combat the practice of putting youngsters to work. Officials from Mexico, Canada, and the United States will meet in Ottawa in October to recommend ways to do that. Still, farm laborers younger than Mexico's legal working age of 14 are a common sight in the countryside. In the village of Villa Juarez, near the Sinaloan capital of Culiacan, 20 tomato-field workers recently gathered around a parked truck. Half were children. They included Marcos Antonio, 7, dressed in a ragged shirt and shorts. He and his family migrated to Villa Juarez from the poorer state of Guerrero; now he toils alongside his mother on the same crew. Why does he work? ''My father died," he says simply.

Mexican youth also can be found gluing shoes in workshops in Guanajuato State, stacking bricks in Durango, and lifting two or three times their body weight in produce at Mexico City's central market. Children who clean up toxic oil residues in Tabasco are in "the worst situation," says Eduardo Rodriguez Silva of UNICEF's Mexico City office. The work performed by many kids leaves them scarred, injured, or disabled. They usually come from poor and poorly educated families. Their parents are often ill, absent, or deceased and worked as youths themselves.

Estimates of the number of Mexican child laborers range from the government's 400,000 to UNICEF's 2 million to 4 million. The Mexican Constitution officially outlaws wage labor for children below age 14, and most modern Mexican factories are believed to screen out underage workers. But child labor persists in agriculture and small and family businesses.

Mexico claims nearly universal enrollment in elementary school, but povertyleads hundreds of thousands of children to drop out. Many who stay in school work part time. In Villa Juarez, the Henry Ford School 23, named for early support from Ford Motor Co., teaches children in morning and afternoon shifts. That allows them to work half time in vegetable processing plants or in the fields that surround the school. Yet some parents withdraw their children from school anyway.

The Secretariat for Social Development tries to keep elementary school pupils from dropping out as they migrate with their families to Sinaloa and other states. Mexico has recently funneled more money into such efforts, says UNICEF's Rodriguez. In August the government announced a program called El Progresa to offer poor families improved schooling, nutrition, and housing.

But social service agencies have yet to catch up with people like Crecensio Piochinto, a migrant to Sinaloa from Guerrero, who spoke with a reporter as he bathed in an agricultural canal with his wife and children, ages 10 and 12. The entire family works in the fields. Piochinto says his children aren't receiving an education because "there's no school here." Told that the Henry Ford School is just a few hundred yards away, he sighs, "Well, but I couldn't afford to send them to school."

Laws ignored. Meanwhile, the child labor laws remain widely unenforced. "

The reality of Mexico is that in many cases the Constitution isn't followed," notes Emilio Krieger Vazquez, a journalist and veteran campaigner for social causes. Labor inspectors who have the responsibility for spotting underage employees are overworked and underpaid, and the government allows favored companies and industries to get away with prohibited labor practices, say Mexican labor leaders.

Whether specific instances of child labor will ever result in NAFTA sanctions is doubtful. The three NAFTA governments or outside groups can initiate complaints on child labor, but so far, nobody has. Even if Mexico were officially found not to be enforcing child labor laws, it could not be fined more than $29.3 million in any given case, says the U.S. Labor Department. That's an insignificant shareof last year's $419 billion in trade among the three NAFTA countries.

Activists say little has come of past labor complaints under NAFTA: Mexico can avoid fines simply by showing an attempt to end an offense. Some activists instead believe that the way to force countries to curb child labor is to bar their child-made goods from the rich U.S. market. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, is sponsoring a bill to block such imports. Consumer groups are also lobbying Congress to label produce with its origin for consumers worried about food safety or foreign farming practices. ''I think if a company or a country knows that it will be losing money, then that forces them to change," says Linda Golodner, National Consumers League president and co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition, which includes more than 50 unions, public health schools, and religious organizations.

Golodner points to consumer actions against soccer ball manufacturers in Pakistan and garment factories in Bangladesh. The soccer ball makers agreed this spring to phase out their use of youngsters as ball stitchers after U.S. and European schoolchildren urged a boycott. In Bangladesh, clothing makers for such retailers as Wal-Mart agreed to move children out of factories and into school. The accord was reached after the threat of a U.S. boycott of Bangladeshi garments, launched by the Child Labor Coalition. Now, activists say, it's Mexico's turn to face the scrutiny of its American customers.

By S.L. Bachman

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Source: U.S. News & World Report, 09/01/97, Vol. 123 Issue 8, p40, 2p, 2c.

Item Number: 9708273441

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