No Child Labor a Good Thing?


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Doing the wash while her parents are in the fields

The plight of migrant agricultural workers sadly continues, decades after César Chavez’ death.

In one month this year, five children died in the migrant camps of Teacapán, near where I live in Mexico: one fell into a ravine, another was bit by a scorpion, a third choked, a fourth drowned in an uncovered water tank… On our trip to visit the migrant workers recently, we met a family that had lost a two-year old just a few months ago. Such is what happens when adults need to work in the fields to feed their families, and children are left home to take care of younger siblings and neighbor kids.

Click on any photo in this post to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Most of us can agree that child labor isn’t a good thing. Many of us perhaps campaigned or voted to outlaw child labor. Grocery store chains won’t buy produce harvested by children, so the local growers are vigilant to ensure that children don’t participate in agricultural activities. But, with the absence of effective support systems, and given the horribly inequitable economy in which we live, outlawing child labor has meant that children are dying, and are not being educated, in record numbers.

The thousands of migrant workers in my state of Sinaloa come from places like Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero—poorer states of the Mexican Republic. Most of the workers are native Mexicans: Miztecos, Zapotecos… Many of them don’t speak Spanish; it’s a foreign language to them. Most of them don’t have birth certificates or official documentation—they were born at home and it’s not their custom to register with the government. Given the lack of language and birth certificates, most migrants are unable to enroll their children in school.

Sound like a hard life? Add to it the fact that the migrant workers are treated like outsiders in most any community in which they work. In Teacapán, for example, I was told the migrants pay 2000 to 3000 pesos a month for rent—of a ROOM, with no running water, no furniture, and most definitely no toilet or kitchen. In Mazatlán you can rent a functioning apartment for that price. It was heartbreaking to see.

During my trip to visit the migrant workers, there were still huge puddles of standing water on the roads, in the yards, and in fields. I was told that Hurricane Patricia dumped 25 inches of rain on Teacapán in 15 hours; the puddles were the last remnants of that flooding, still remaining months after the event.

The migrant workers experience discrimination. Many of the townspeople tell their children to stay away from the migrants; they call them filthy and stupid. I suppose if I didn’t have access to water or a toilet at home, I’d be dirty, too. Last Christmas, a church in Mazatlán brought toys to the migrant workers’ kids, and some of the townspeople made such a fuss because their kids didn’t get toys, that the church was afraid to go back this year. The mistreatment of migrants is by no means limited to Teacapán; that is just where I happened to visit.

The migrant workers told me they stay here in Sinaloa for about six months, then travel to Baja or Zacatecas to continue their labors, rotating their residence to follow the agricultural cycle. One worker told me he is paid two pesos for a bucket of chiles; how is that for exploitation! Can you imagine how long it must take to pick a bucket of chiles? Women work all day in the fields, then return home in the evening to cook and care for the kids.

I went to visit the migrant worker families on a trip organized by Sue Parker of Vecinos con Cariño. Each of the ten of us on the trip that day paid 400 pesos, money which is used to buy food, disposable diapers, baby formula, and basic medical supplies (cough syrup, cold medicine, aspirin, first aid supplies), after paying the expenses of the van and driver.

In Teacapán, we visited the home of Helen and Jerry Lohman, who are on the Cultural Detective learning path. They have a gorgeous place, right on the ocean. Their yard is the biggest stretch of green grass I’ve seen in Mexico outside a golf course. The Lohmans and their driver, Ulises Gil Altamirano (a retired engineer), do all they can to help the migrant workers. Helen has learned the hard way that the migrants do not like to wear shoes (they wear huaraches or go barefoot), nor do the women wear slacks. She has personally sewn 22 pairs of jeans, 57 dresses, and 72 receiving blankets that she’s given out to the migrant families just in the past couple of months. She has five volunteers who now help her. Ulises works as ambulance driver, interpreter, and lawyer for many of the migrant families.

On this trip we met another Cultural Detective, Brenda Irvin, who lives in Teacapán with her husband. Despite having her arm in a sling, Brenda goes out three days a week, every week, to hand out nutritive biscuits and milk to the migrant children. Oh, how they look forward to her visits! She has divided the town into four zones, and each of the days she goes out, she visits a different zone, in rotation.

Brenda, the Lohmans, and Ulises worked hundreds of hours to get registration information for 500 members of the migrant worker community. They got a judge to agree to issue them birth certificates so the kids could go to school and the parents could get access to health insurance. But, after all that effort, the documentation remains in limbo; the judge has not come through on his word.

Brenda told me that a few years ago she happened to gain an audience with our state governor. She showed him photos of the conditions in which the migrant workers live. He agreed to get the state DIF (Family Development Services) involved. Now Sinaloa DIF sends milk, the nutritive cookies, and some other basic items to Teacapán regularly, and Brenda delivers them to the workers’ families.

I am posting a lot of photos, because the photos tell you more than I can with my words.

Vecinos con Cariño (VCC) will welcome your donations; 100% of what you donate will go to help the migrant worker families. The money goes a long way; a donation of US$300 helps them clothe all the kids, for example. They will also take donations of gently used clothing, basic medical supplies, disposable diapers, and non-perishable food items. Contact Sue Parker via email for specifics.

“No Child Labor” is an interesting and sad example of the unintended consequences of imposing a well-intentioned system outside of its culture of origin, and not making appropriate adjustments/modifications. For years, in families all over the world, children have helped with the jobs that needed to be done. Children “came with,” and even if the younger children watched those still younger, it was within proximity of parents. That is how they learned to do various jobs including childcare, and that, in and of itself, is not the problem. The problem arises when child labor is exploited and precludes education.

As good Cultural Detectives, we must remember there are usually at least two “sides” or perspectives to every situation. I trust you will use Cultural Detective Online to develop your ability to understand alternate realities and reflect on the possible unintended consequences of our actions, so that together we can, indeed, build justice and equity in our world.

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