Kids in the Fields

by David Bacon Mexicali Valley, Baja California, Mexico

From a distance, the green-onion field looks almost festive. Strung between pieces of iron rods, dozens of colored cloth sheets ripple in the morning breeze and shelter workers from the Mexicali Valley sun. The soft conversation of hundreds of people, sitting in rows next to great piles of green onions, fills the air. The vegetable's pungent scent is everywhere. Wandering among the workers are toddlers, some nursing on baby bottles and others chewing on the onions. A few sleep in the rows, and some in vegetable bins in makeshift beds of blankets.

But the toddlers aren't the only children in this field. Dozens of the workers, perhaps a quarter, range in age from 6 to 16. The foreman, who doesn't reveal his name, says it's normal for his 300-person crew to include entire families, youngsters and all. The workers, he says, are employed by the Oxnard, California-based Muranaka Farms.

The children are some of the hidden victims of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a controversial deal between the United States, Mexico and Canada. Since NAFTA took effect in 1994, US growers such as Muranaka have relocated production across the border. Their profiteering, subsidized by the Mexican government, intensified an economic crisis marked by the December 1994 plunge in the value of Mexican currency. As the incomes of poor Mexicans dropped by almost half, desperation pushed new waves of children into the fields. Thousands of kids now produce crops destined for dinner tables in northern cities around the world, from Minneapolis to Tokyo.

Targeting these markets, joint ventures between Mexican and US growers "are achieving greater competitiveness at the cost of children working in the fields," says Gema López Limón, an education professor at the Autonomous University of Baja California, who investigates child labor in agriculture. "We're creating a workforce without education, condemned to the lowest wages and to periods of great unemployment."

ACQUIESCENCE: Like the United States, Mexico outlaws child labor. Article 123 of the nation's constitution says children under 14 may not work, and those between 14 and 16 may work only six hours a day. Article 22 of the federal labor law likewise bars employment under 14, and permits work between 14 and 16 only by special permission and only if the children have completed an elementary education.

While government statistics do not track the number of working children, Mexico's Labor and Social Forecasting Secretariat estimates that various economic sectors employ a total of 800,000 workers under 14. Based on the 1990 census, the Public Education Secretariat guesses that more than 2.5 million kids between 6 and 14 don't attend school.

The second International Independent Tribunal Against Child Labor, held in Mexico City in March 1996, concluded that the economic forces behind expanded Mexican child labor were having the same effect in other countries. The number of working children globally has climbed to more than 250 million, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). "Trade agreements like NAFTA and [the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] promised protections for workers," López testified. "But they don't prohibit child labor, they regulate it."

After three days of testimony by witnesses from 18 countries, the tribunal called for ratifying the 1973 ILO Convention 138, which bans labor by school-age children. Only 58 countries had signed the pact, and neither Mexico nor the United States had ratified it. Mar "a Estela R "os González, president of the Mexican National Association of Democratic Lawyers, says international support for the convention buckled under big-business pressure.

To upstage the ILO blanket ban on child labor, the United Nations formulated another convention, Number 32, in 1989. This one, while decrying child labor, allows each nation to determine an age at which children may work and to regulate the circumstances of their labor. Mexico and many other countries that refuse to ratify the ILO measure have adopted the UN approach. Free-market champions have rallied behind the UN convention because they hope regulating child labor will undermine efforts to eliminate it.

"We cannot substitute the labor of countless children for the inadequate income of their parents," R "os González says. "During all the history of humanity, adults have been the protectors and nurturers of children. Now children are nurturing and protecting the adults. We are robbing them of their future."

DROP-OUTS: Mar "a, 12, works along-side her mother in the Muranaka field. "My grandmother told me this year that we didn't have enough money for me to go to school," she says. "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."

Honorina Ruiz, 6, sits nearby in front of a green-onion pile. She lines up eight or nine onions, straightening out their roots and tails. Then she knocks off the dirt, puts a rubber band around them, and adds the bunch to a box beside her. Too shy to say more than her name, she seems proud to be able to do what her brother Rigoberto, at 13, has become very good at.

Some 3,000 children work in Mexicali Valley's green-onion harvest, says López, the education professor. The October-June growing season, which coincides with the academic year, hurts school attendance. While the valley's population has increased in recent years--the city of Mexicali alone boasts more than 600,000 inhabitants--rural schools keep losing children.

At the Alfredo A. Uchurtu primary school in the heart of the green-onion district, teacher Pedro González Hernández says 40 of 252 enrollees had dropped out by the end of the 1995-1996 season. Attendance began to fall in 1987, when the school had 363 kids. "That's the year we had the first economic collapse in Mexico," he recalls.

"Not only can't they come, but often they don't want to." González admits. "With all the problems they've had in keeping up, when they do come, they face blame."

"We've tried to devise a kind of study that these children can do at home," he adds. "It will never be as good as attending class, but at least it's some alternative."

In another effort, Baja California teachers have convinced the state government to offer $15.73 a month and food coupons to rural children who would otherwise have to work. Twenty-five kids at Uchurtu get the allowance, and all of them are still in class. But the program lacks funds to help all the kids who need it, and some government officials are rumored to have diverted allowances for their own children.

Even with more funds and proper administration, such measures would likely fall short in the NAFTA era. "What drives children into the fields is that the wages their parents receive isn't enough to support the family," González says.

In 1996, Mexicali Valley companies paid about $.11 for a dozen bunches of onions. For an adult, a good day's work amounted to $6.66. A young child, on the other hand, would produce enough to earn only about $3. Field workers said the growers hadn't raised the piece rate since 1995, despite grocery price hikes. In 1996, a gallon of milk rose from $2 to $2.33, more than a third of an adult's daily wages.

Adults and children work the same day, usually from 5:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is no overtime pay, except for work on Sunday. The Muranaka field had just one portable bathroom for the whole crew. A metal drum on wheels held drinking water. The climate adds to the misery. Mexicali Valley, extending south from the border of California and Arizona, is an irrigated desert. In late spring, despite the cloth shelters, it gets brutally hot. In winter, the temperature can drop to freezing.

FLIGHT: Muranaka is among numerous US vegetable producers that operate in Mexico. Besides the green onions, the produce includes spinach, radishes, cilantro, parsley, kale, leeks and beets--all processed in Mexicali Valley packing sheds.

Carisa Wright of Muranaka Farms says her firm considers its Mexican operations profitable, and is expanding them. "Most of our operations are labor intensive, so we do save money on labor costs by comparison with those in the US," she notes.

Muranaka management would not answer specific questions about its use of children. "As far as we know," a company letter states, "our growers comply in the fullest with Mexican federal and state labor laws to the best of their abilities." Workers, the letter adds, "are over the minimum legal working age."

Tom Nunes of the Nunes Company, a large vegetable grower based in Salinas, California, contracts with a Mexicali Valley grower. The grower cultivates the onions, packs them in ice, and sends them to Nunes. Nunes sells the onions at market prices, then gives the grower what's left after deducting for seeds, cartons, loading, customs duties, and a sales charge. Nunes estimates he profits only $.01 per bunch.

Could the company sell the bunch for an extra penny to raise field-worker wages? "There's no incentive for us to do that," Nunes responds. "There are no green onions grown now in the US in the winter, because they can't compete with the price of those grown in Mexico."

"I wouldn't go over there if this competition didn't exit," he says. "The power of the market is stronger than all of us."

Calling it a free market, however, would be a mistake. To lure US investment, the Mexican government promises a low-wage workforce and a wealth of subsidies. Direct assistance starts with irrigated water, which is much cheaper in Mexicali Valley than across the border in California's Imperial Valley.

"What we need is to produce food, first, for people to eat here in Mexico, where people are actually hungry and where no one buys these green onions," says López, the education professor. "Then, if we have extra capacity to produce, we can sell the rest on the market in the US or anywhere else. The government makes the same kind of argument about the maquiladoras (export-oriented assembly plants)—that they bring jobs. Yes, but are they jobs with a future that a family can live on?"

Source: A. Sanders and M. Sommers, Child Labor is Not Cheap

(Minneapolis: Resource Center of the Americas, 1997).