NAFTA's Children Out of the Schools and Into the Fields

From a distance, the green-onion field, located in the heart of Baja California's Mexicali Valley, looks almost festive. Dozens of large colored sheets, strung between lengths of iron rebar to provide shelter from the sun, ripple in the morning breeze. The soft conversations of hundreds of farm workers, sitting and working in the rows beside giant piles of scallions, fill the air. Small toddlers wander among the seated workers, some of them nursing on baby bottles, others, their faces smeared with dirt, chewing on the freshly picked onions. A few sleep in the rows, or in the vegetable bins, in little makeshift beds of piled blankets. A closer look reveals that these toddlers are not the only children in the field. As the morning sun illuminates the faces of the workers, it reveals dozens of young girls and boys. By rough count, perhaps a quarter of the workers here are between 6 and 16 years old. These are Mexico's forgotten children, working in export agriculture -- the hidden victims of NAFTA. Thousands of them work in crops destined for dinner tables in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Tokyo and London. The children in this field (according to the crew foreman, who doesn't want to reveal his name) work for Muranaka Farms, a U.S. grower headquartered in Camarillo. Limping slightly, Gema Lopez Limon moves carefully and deliberately down the rows. She is a stranger to the families seated here in the dirt, but obviously a friendly one. She stops next to Maria, who is working alongside her mother, and talks to her softly. Maria is 12 years old. "My grandmother told me this year that we didn't have enough money for me to go to school," she explains. "At first, I stayed home to take care of my little sister. But it was boring, and sometimes it was scary being by ourselves all day. So I came to work here. We need the money." Lopez, a professor in the school of education at the Autonomous University of Baja California in Mexicali, whose investigations into rural-school conditions have made her an authority on child labor in the border areas, takes careful note of what Maria is telling her and moves on down the row. Honorina Ruiz notices Lopez coming toward her, but keeps working, grabbing onions from the top of her pile. Her hands are very quick as she lines up eight or nine onions, straightens out their roots and tails, knocks most of the dirt off, binds them with a rubber band and adds the bunch to the box beside her. She's obviously proud to be working alongside her brother Rigoberto, who, at 13, is already very accomplished at his trade. Honorina Ruiz is 6 years old. Lopez talks to Honorina's mother for a few minutes, then continues walking. In a neighboring onion field, Lopez finds another crew. According to foreman Samuel Cerna, this field is being farmed by Mario Cota, who works for three different U.S. growers. "I finished the first grade," says 12-year-old Lorena, "but then I left." Her mother, Maria, says that she tried to send Lorena back to school, "but what I can earn here by myself isn't enough to live on. She had to come help us." "We start at 5:30 in the morning and go at least until 4," says Lorena, who's been working in these fields for seven years.Child labor is illegal in Mexico, just as it is in the United States. Article 123 of the Mexican Constitution says that children under 14 may not work, and that those between 14 and 16 may work only six hours per day. Article 22 of the federal labor law also prohibits the employment of children younger than 14, and permits those between 14 and 16 to work only by special permission, and only if they've already completed their mandatory education. According to Lopez, however, child labor -- and school absenteeism -- is growing under the impact of the country's successive economic crises, and along with the rise in export-oriented agriculture. Joint ventures between Mexican and U.S. growers, producing for the U.S., European and Japanese markets, "are achieving greater competitiveness at the cost of more children working in the fields," she says. "We're creating a work force without education, condemned to the lowest wages and to long periods of unemployment." Since NAFTA was signed at the end of 1993, profits have soared for growers who have relocated operations across the border. NAFTA also helped create the economic crisis that brought on the devaluation of the peso in 1994. The incomes of poor Mexicans dropped by almost half, and the ensuing economic desperation brought new waves of children into the fields. While no official statistics are collected on the number of these working children, the government's Secretariat of Labor and Social Forecasting estimates that roughly 800,000 children under 14 are working in different sections of Mexico's economy. Lopez works with Federico Garcia Estrada, the human-rights prosecutor for the state of Baja California, to document the growth of child labor along the border. They say that 3,000 children work in the Mexicali Valley's green-onion harvest. Beginning in October and running through June, the season coincides with the school year and has a dramatic impact on school attendance. As the population of the valley grows -- the city of Mexicali itself now boasts more than 600,000 inhabitants -- attendance at rural schools continues to drop. The Alfredo A. Uchurtu primary school draws its students from Ejido Veracruz II, a rural community in the heart of the green-onion district. Teacher Pedro Gonzalez Hernandez is another seasoned veteran of the fight to keep children out of the fields. It's a fight, he says, they're losing. Of the 252 students who registered at Uchurtu last September, more than 40 were no longer coming at all by the end of the season. "Attendance began to fall in 1987, when the school had 363 children," he recalls. "That's the year of the first economic collapse." Economic crises and galloping inflation have plagued the Mexican economy in the wake of enormous foreign debt accumulated by the government in the 1970s. The country's governing technocratic elite has sought to resolve these crises with economic reforms and austerity programs designed to attract foreign investment with the lure of low wages and high unemployment. While negotiating NAFTA with the U.S., the Mexican government would sweeten the pot periodically by devaluing the peso, as they did in 1987. After each devaluation, U.S. investors were able to meet their Mexican payrolls with fewer dollars. For poor Mexicans, however, each devaluation made the goods and services they needed to survive more expensive. Many more families began bringing their children into the workplace, and as more and more children went to work, the classrooms got emptier and emptier. Of the 16 boys in Uchurtu's sixth grade, seven come to class only two or three times a week. Of the 11 girls, three have the same problem. "For these children, we've tried to devise a kind of study they can do at home," Gonzalez says. "It will never be as good as actually attending class, but at least it's an alternative to not coming at all." Teachers in Baja California have tried other ways to keep children in school. They persuaded the state government to offer stipends of 118 pesos a month, plus food coupons, to rural children who would otherwise have to work. Twenty-five kids at Uchurtu get this stipend, and all of them are still in class. But there aren't enough stipends, and there are rumors that children of middle-class government functionaries take some of them. "We have to admit," Gonzalez says, "that not only can't they come, but often they don't want to. With all the problems they have keeping pace with their classmates, when they do come, they face a lot of blame [from some teachers]." At a countryside crossroads in Colonia Madero, a school sits in one corner of a plowed field. The furrows come up almost to the edge of the two small buildings. The school has been abandoned. "The people went away looking for work," a neighbor says, "and the school was left without children. At last the teacher had only two students, and they closed it." The Mexicali Valley extends south from Mexico's border with California and Arizona. It is an irrigated desert. Despite the bed-linen shelters, the onion fields get brutally hot during the day by late spring, and in winter the temperature can go down to freezing. In the Muranaka fields, there is one portable bathroom for the whole crew. A metal drum on wheels holds the drinking water. This year, the companies are paying 80 or 81 centavos (about 11 cents) for a dozen bunches of onions. For an adult, this might amount to 50 pesos (about $7) on a good day. A young child might earn half that. A gallon of milk costs 17.50 pesos -- almost half a day's labor for an adult. At the height of the season, both adults and children will likely find themselves working from dawn to dusk, and except for Sundays, no one's getting overtime. In other words, conditions for workers in the Mexicali Valley are very much like those suffered by farm workers in California in the 1930s and '40s, before the era of the United Farm Workers. And the existence of such conditions has acted like a magnet for such California growers as Boscovich Farms, Frank Capurro, VegaMix and Phoenix Vegetable Growers. According to Juan Pablo Hernandez Diaz, president of the Mexicali Valley's Agricultural Association of Vegetable Producers, most U.S. growers contract with their Mexican counterparts, providing chemicals and loans and agreeing to distribute and sell the Mexican-grown green onions at the wholesale market price. A few U.S. companies, Hernandez says, run their own Mexican operations or have formed joint ventures with Mexican growers. Carisa Wright of Muranaka Farms says the company's operations in Mexico are profitable and expanding. She declines to provide figures, but Mexican observers calculate that the gross receipts to a grower from a hectare of green onions may reach 25,500 pesos, or $3,600. Some 10,000 hectares of Mexicali Valley are planted in green onions, which can be harvested twice a year. (Sometimes the onions alternate with another crop, such as radishes.) "Most of our operations are labor-intensive," she says, "so we do save money on labor costs compared to the U.S." When asked to comment on the use of child labor, Muranaka didn't respond. At Fresh Choice in Salinas, spokesman Greg Flood claims that while his company doesn't consider itself responsible for the employment practices of the Mexican growers with whom it contracts, both Fresh Choice and its Mexican partners are in compliance with Mexico's laws. He travels to the Mexicali Valley at least 10 times a year. He's seen very young children with their parents in the fields, which he attributes to a shortage of childcare. He likens the situation to that of the hardware-store owner who brings his son or daughter to the store with him.Tom Nunes of the Nunes Company, another large vegetable grower in Salinas, uses the same Mexican contractor as Fresh Choice. The Mexican concern grows and packs the green onions in ice and sends them to the Nunes coolers in Salinas and Yuma. Nunes sells the onions at market price, deducting the cost of seeds, cartons, loading and customs duties, as well as a charge for selling the onions, which he estimates at about 1 cent per bunch. What's left over belongs to the Mexican grower. Asked if he would consider charging an extra penny per bunch for his onions in order to raise the wages paid to field workers, he responds, "There's no incentive for us to raise the price." Besides, says Nunes, he can't tell his Mexican partner how to run his business. "There are no longer green onions grown in the U.S. in the winter," Nunes acknowledges, "because we can't compete with the price of the green onions grown in Mexico. To some extent, this was the case before NAFTA. But what's really causing the present situation is the devaluation of the peso. What people are earning in Mexico is nothing. The power of the market is stronger than all of us." Juan Pablo Hernandez, president of the producers' association, agrees that devaluation was a shot in the arm for the industry, which he says was in danger of disappearing. Now he estimates that the green-onion harvest in the Mexicali Valley has an average wholesale value of $50 million -- about 12 million cartons selling for $3 to $5 apiece. The Mexican growers, he says, get $1 to $2 per box. Hernandez considers the crop a boon to the valley's residents. He says that it has provided nearly year-round employment since growers began planting green onions in 1966. Before that, workers had employment only during the cotton harvest, for a few months during the summer. In the off-season, they had to migrate. Although Hernandez, like the Fresh Choice spokesman, sees the problem of child labor as stemming from a shortage of childcare ("We could prohibit parents from bringing their children to the fields, but then we'd have a bigger problem with the kids being left home by themselves"), he admits that Mexico's worsening economic crisis has resulted in parents feeling that there is no future for their children. "If there are no jobs for educated people," he asks, "or if what an educated person can earn is less than what a family earns in the fields, what kind of future is that? When parents see engineers selling tacos for a living, why should they invest money -- money they don't have -- in sending their kids to school?" "What makes our country attractive to U.S. growers," child-labor authority Lopez adds, "is low wages. We're told that if we make our country attractive enough for foreign investment, transnational corporations will come here to invest in greater productivity, and this will lift us out of poverty. But does it? That investment produces wealth we never see. Meanwhile, we're stuck with miserable economic conditions." Mexicali Valley agriculture, dependent on exports and the U.S. market, is a showcase for this economic policy, called "structural adjustment" (programas de ajusto estructural) and promoted by both the Mexican government and the International Monetary Fund. The policy uses depressed wages to attract investment. To keep wages low, the government creates subsidies -- some indirect, like meals for rural children and the stipends to keep them in school, others (mostly those that benefit the growers) direct, such as the one for irrigation water, which is consequently much cheaper in Mexicali than it is just across the border in the Imperial Valley. "These foreign companies bring jobs here to the fields," Lopez concedes. "But what kind of jobs are they? Jobs with no future. What we need is to go back to producing food for people to eat in Mexico, where people are actually hungry. No one here eats these green onions." Rural teacher Gonzalez says structural adjustment also means that Mexicans lose control over the management of their own society. "Our laws say one thing, for instance, about child labor. But the reality is something else, and everyone knows it. The companies may create jobs, but they also have to pay better wages."The analysis developed by activists such as Lopez, Gonzalez and Garcia is not just rhetoric. They're demanding solutions. In March, Lopez went to Mexico City, taking her accusations -- and several of the children from the Mexicali fields -- before the second International Independent Tribunal Against Child Labor. "Trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT promised protections for workers," Lopez testified, "but instead of prohibiting child labor, they regulate it." The tribunal brought witnesses from 18 countries to the huge auditorium of Mexico's largest hospital, the social-security health complex in the capital. The explosive testimony of children made headlines in Mexico City newspapers and sparked several impassioned television commentaries. The tribunal found that the economic forces responsible for the growth of child labor in Mexico have had the same effect in many countries. Globally, the number of working children has climbed to more than 150 million. In a document issued after three days of formal hearings, tribunal judges called for the ratification of the International Labor Organization's (ILO) Convention 138, which outlaws labor by children of mandatory school age. Only 58 countries have ratified the accord. Neither Mexico nor the United States is among the ratifiers. One of the principal organizers of the tribunal, Maria Estele Rios Gonzales, recently sworn in as president of the Mexican National Association of Democratic Lawyers, noted that international support for the convention has weakened under the impact of the marketplace. To counteract the ILO blanket prohibition on child labor, the United Nations formulated another convention (No. 32) in 1989. This one, while loudly decrying the existence of child labor, leaves it up to each government to determine the age at which such labor is permitted and to regulate the circumstances under which children work. Many countries that refused to ratify Convention 138, including Mexico, have adopted the U.N. approach (though the United States has not). "Instead of saying that we should recognize that child labor exists and therefore regulate it," Rios says, "we should just eliminate it. We cannot substitute the labor of countless children for the inadequate income of their parents. Adults have traditionally been the protectors and nurturers of children. Now we have children nurturing and protecting the adults. We are robbing these children of their future."

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