Agricultural child labor, between the pressures of the T-MEC and the producers

A few weeks ago Elías Santiago arrived in the United States, the agricultural company The one he works for in Mexico sent him for the first time to his fields in Florida. In Sinaloa he grows Asian vegetables for the Chinese community in the northern country. “Everything must be perfect, the best of the harvest is sent,” she says before leaving. “And sometimes they visit us labor inspectorsThat’s why they don’t let us have our children in the fields, but we can’t tell them what’s happening to us either.”

The Treaty between Mexico, the United States and Canada (T-MEC) prohibits imports produced with forced or compulsory child labor. The Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration has paid special attention to the Mexican agricultural sector, although others, such as the automotive sector, have more economic weight. The agricultural exports to the American Union exceeded 2,074 million dollars in April; those of the automotive manufacturing13,255 million dollars, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi).

The US government has focused on agricultural fields because “the largest proportion of child labor is presented there, and because it is one of the sectors” with less verification of the norms, points out Óscar Castillo, director of the Fields of Hope programan initiative of the aid organization World Vision, within the framework of the World Day Against Child Labor which is commemorated on June 12.

According to the National Child Labor Survey (ENTI), the agricultural sector It is the one that most occupies the forces of girls, boys and adolescents. The latest data from this measurement, financed by the US government, reflect that the population that works in the field is close to 589,300 minors; 87% are male.

The covid-19 pandemic increased the risk of child labor. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that for each point that poverty increases, the employment of minors rises 0.7 percent. In Mexico, poverty grew 9.1 points in 2020, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), going from 41.5 to 50.6 percent. That would mean that at least 210,000 more girls and boys started working.

But for Senator Ricardo Monreal (Morena), the pandemic caused “a new look at the countryside, as a space for the development and growth of Mexico.” At the beginning of the year he participated in the forum Job Opportunities for Youth in the Agricultural Sectorconvened by the National Agricultural Council (CNA) to promote a amendment to the Federal Labor Law (LFT) to allow adolescents aged 16 and 17 to work in the agricultural sector.

In that space he defended the reform, “we have already discussed it with Juan (Cortina Gallardo, president of the CNA) and with several of you,” he said. “The field is aging us and it is important that young people turn to see it as a opportunity industry”, pointed out Cortina Gallardo.

Since 2017, the CNA has worked to modify article 176 of the LFT and was successful in February 2022. There are activities that this group of adolescents can carry out “without putting their health at risk,” Juan Cortina said at the meeting. “Many look for sources of income in activities that are not legal to get ahead,” he argued, linking the ban to their capture by organized crime.

In April, the United States Department of Labor provided Mexico with an allocation of 28 million dollars for projects that combat child labor.

Reform does not allow child labor: STPS

Eliminating was easier than regulating, says Senator Nancy Sánchez (Morena), author of the reform to the LFT that allows adolescents over 15 years of age work in agricultural activities. In 2015 “work in the fields was prohibited for these young people, because they are not adolescents,” he emphasizes, “but what was needed was to regulate it.”

In February, Congress modified article 176 of the LFT, which indicates jobs prohibited for minors under 18 because they are dangerous or unhealthyAmong them are agricultural work. The reform added a condition: they will not be able to engage in them if they involve “the use of chemicals, handling of machinery, heavy vehicles, and those determined by the competent authority.”

However, “not only machinery and chemicals, but also in farm work people are subject to extreme temperatures, to ergonomic risks (for spending so much time crouching, for example), to loads greater than what is established by the regulatory framework”, explains Omar Estefan, general director of Social Welfare of the Ministry of Labor and Welfare. Social (STPS).

The STPS has until October to create a Mexican Official Standard (NOM) that determines what activities they can carry out and under what conditions.

Mexico is the second country in Latin America, after Brazil, with more children and adolescents working, according to the Economic Commission for America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). According to the ENTI, in 2019 this population exceeded 3.3 million and of that universe, 2 million worked in dangerous occupations or not allowed for their age.

The majority, 31% of this population, is engaged in agricultural activities, livestock, forestry, hunting and fishing. “Social conditions are more precarious in the countryside than in the city, which is why this work needs to be regulated. It may not be desirable, but at 17 years of age many are parents” and need employment, argues the senator.

the crhyme organized Y the worked

“In Mexico, the work of girls, boys and adolescents in the agricultural sector it is prohibited”, the STPS pointed out in a bulletin at the beginning of May. The reform “does not open the possibility of hiring minors in the agricultural sector.”

The NOM will be built on the principles of “best interest of the childof progressiveness of rights, of non-revictimization and with a transversal vision of human rights and decent work”, says Omar Estefan in an interview.

Nancy Sánchez presented the reform initiative in December 2017, when she was a federal deputy for the PRI, and in 2018 it was approved and passed to the Senate. She also came to that Chamber, now by Morena, and from there she promoted her proposal until it was endorsed in February.

“To elaborate this law, we had meetings with day laborers and organized youth, children of laborerswho in order to study have to work”, he assures.

“But there is also another reason, in these years that they could not work in the fields, the one who did give them work was the organized crime and that, unfortunately, caused us to lose many young people”.

The labor prohibitions for minors approved in 2015 made it possible for more than 25,000 adolescents to stop working and almost 50,000 to return to school. This points to a study by researchers Fernanda Martínez Flores and Mireille Kozhaya, from the German Rhineland-Westphalia Institute for Economic Research (RWI).

“I find the relationship between agriculture and crimebut there is no scientific evidence to show that this is true”, Fernanda Martínez pointed out in an interview.

The challenge of recognizing child labor

when they started the program fields of hopein 2017, there was a resistance on the part of the agricultural companies “to recognize the existence of the child labor or the confusion regarding the terms”, says Óscar Castillo.

“Before, it was very difficult to find companies that would talk about these issues, that would say ‘I have problems with worked childish‘” says Alejandro Martínez, director of the Center for the Rights of Children and Businesses. The T-MEC, but above all, has been due to “public scrutiny, the voice of consumers, the media and social networks,” he adds.

However, “the emphasis of surveillance is on the exporting companies and there is a gap in the rest”, points out Óscar Castillo. “It is in smaller-scale productions that there may be a greater risk of child labor.” Marketing has also been left aside, “we need to analyze beyond the post-harvest. We do not have concrete data, but we have seen” that in the sale of the products there is child labour.

“In agriculture there are multiple situations that violate the labor human rights”, from the outset, to adults, points out Alejandro Martínez. But for those who are minors it is worse, because they cannot have a contract, the workdays exceed the 6 hours allowed, they are not always paid directly and many times they are not even paid, he points out.

“The issue of child labor crosses the labor trafficking, exploitation, abuse, family separation and migration”, he points out. The T-MEC is pressing to change this, and speaks of forced labor, “because the conditions in which child labor occurs are often the prelude to forced labor.”

Mexico has one of the most advanced labor laws, says the specialist, but the flaw is in the inspection and accompaniment of technical assistance. “The inspectors do pass, but the bosses tell us what we have to answer, that everything is fine, that we have a clean place to eat, but it is a table in the field with bird poop, where we do not all fit”, explains Elías Santiago.

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