Children at work

June 25, 1996|By David Bacon

MEXICO CITY -- The child has moved to the center of the global economy -- not the child at play or at school, but the laboring child.

Two international conferences this year have focused attention on this child. One brought bankers and industrialists to Davos, Switzerland, in January for what one New York Times columnist called "the ultimate capitalist convention." The second brought labor organizers, human rights activists and advocates for children to Mexico City for the Second International Independent Tribunal Against Child Labor.

The Davos World Economic Forum, whose participants design the economic rules of life for most of the world's people, was far from upbeat in its assessment of the future. In an essay published the opening day, Davos founder Klaus Schwab and managing director Claude Smadja warned that "a mounting backlash against the effects [of economic globalization], especially in the industrial democracies, is threatening a very disruptive impact on economic activity and social stability in many countries."

Last week in Mexico City, witnesses from 18 countries singled out the growing number of child workers -- now some 150 million -- as the most dramatic consequence of economic globalization and the major cause of the backlash feared at Davos.

Doris Crosby, secretary-general of one of Peru's largest union federations, shocked participants with census figures showing that the number of working children in Peru had grown from 500,000 in 1993 to 1.5 million two years later. "We're going from a civilized country in the Third World to a new Fourth World," she said.

Ms. Crosby blamed privatization programs, commonly required as a condition for governments to receive World Bank loans, for much of the increase. "Once a business has been privatized, it gets rid of the people who work there, then rehires them at minimum wages with no pensions, benefits, unions or rights," she explained. "Parents can't support a family on this wage, so they tell their children to go to work."

Peru's working children catch fish, work in mines, harvest crops, bake bread, sell candy in the streets. "Little children come up to women in the market and ask to carry their bags, which are much too heavy for them to lift," Ms. Crosby said.

In Mexico, where hundreds of thousands of jobs have been eliminated by privatization over the last six years, the number of children in large cities who work has grown to some 15 million, according to Emilio Krieger, the dean of Mexican labor attorneys.

In the Mexican countryside just south of the Mexico-U.S. border, child labor is cutting into school attendance even as the school-age population grows. Some rural schools in the Mexicali Valley have been closed down for lack of students.

Gema Lopez Limon, a researcher from the University of Baja California, described farm laboring crews in the valley made up of entire families. Piece rates are so low for harvesting green onions and tomatoes that the income of the parents alone can no longer feed the family.

These crops are grown for export on farms often run or owned by U.S. growers and food processors.

"Trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT promised protections for workers," the researcher testified. "But they don't prohibit child labor, they regulate it. Companies achieve greater competitiveness at the cost of children working in the fields."

In 1973 the International Labor Organization formulated Convention 138, which prohibits child labor, performed by children of mandatory school age. Only 58 countries signed the accord.

In 1989 the United Nations formulated another convention. This one leaves it up to each government to determine the age at which child labor is permitted, and under what circumstances. Many countries that refused to ratify Convention 138 have adopted the U.N. approach. The United States hasn't ratified either agreement.

"Global economic policies promote unemployment among adults," Maria Estela Rios Gonzalez concluded. Ms. Rios is president of the Mexican National Association of Democratic Lawyers, which sponsored the tribunal. "Child labor is cheaper, more docile and easier to manipulate. Children demand less. But we cannot have unemployment for thousands of adults and substitute for it the labor of countless children. This is a violation of all it means to be a human being."

David Bacon is associate editor at Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 6/25/96

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