El Universal leads this morning with a look at illegal child labor in Mexico. Most of it takes place on smaller farms, where production is “based on a totally illegal system of exploitation,” with abuses that constitute “a monument to impunity.”
Those quotes belong to Alfonso Navarrete Prida, the federal labor secretary who granted El Universal an interview for what some activist organizations have designated the International Day Against Child Slavery. He took advantage of the opportunity to tout the Peña Nieto administration’s progress toward eliminating the problem.
The number of children who are working —or to use the secretary’s lingo, “in a condition of labor” — has fallen from 3 million to 2.5 million since Peña Nieto and Naverrete Prida took office.
There are several reasons for the decrease. One is a common policy among importers of Mexican food products, including Wal-Mart, to blackball suppliers known to use child labor. Federal programs that in essence pay families to keep their kids in school help, too.
Naverrete Prida gives most of the credit to the 2012 labor reform that allowed federal investigators to go right into the workplace to look for signs of child labor. They couldn’t do that before, for some reason. The labor secretary says his staff has carried out almost 11,000 such inspections.
The article has some problems. For one thing, there’s a confusion of terms that starts with the headline: “Red flags in 6 states for ‘child slavery’”
“Red flags” is in italics because it’s a metaphor, though a common one. It’s more literally translated as “red lights” and it refers to the areas of highest impact, in this case where there’s the most child labor. Those would be in the low-income, low-education, seasonal agricultural regions of Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sinaloa, Zacatecas, Michoacán and Guerrero.
That’s not the confusing part. “Child slavery” is. They put those words in quotes, though Navarrete never uses them in the article (he’s the only talking head in it). The assumption then is that they’re scare quotes, indicating the term isn’t being used precisely.
The writer, in fact, goes back and forth between using the word “slavery” and the phrase “comparable to slavery,” or perhaps “equivalent to slavery” (equiparable). That may be a distinction without a difference, but child slavery implies, in the words of the International Labor Organization, “the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labor, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.”
Those conditions exist in Mexico, we all know, but the point is that the scope of the problem is broader. It is illegal, for example, to employ a 16-year-old boy in such a way that he can’t finish middle school, even though he’s eager to work and has his parents’ permission to work (or, as Navarrete reminds us, often his parents’ order to work). There’s no slavery involved, but the kid’s being exploited nonetheless. His childhood, education and future are endangered.
Is it cynical to wonder if the word "slavery" is there because it gives the head and lead more bang? As if abuse and exploitation and lost childhood weren't enough?
What misleads even more in the article is its ongoing genus-species conflation. Today the term “child labor” is construed negatively, with the adjective “exploitive” assumed. That’s fine.
But there’s a difference between “child labor” in that negative sense and the broader category of “minors in a condition of labor.” Not all work done by minors is harmful. That’s why there are laws defining what’s legal and what isn’t. In Mexico, for example, nobody under the age of 14 can be hired at all. Those 14-17 can only be hired under schooling- and health-related restrictions. And working standards apply.
Under proper conditions, however, a teenager can gain some rewarding work experience, not to mention spending cash, without jeopardizing his or her education or development.
Violations are rampant, and range in their degree of exploitation up to the horrific. In an excellent exposé last December, the Los Angeles Times estimated the number of Mexican children under 14 picking crops for pay at 100,000, and gave this chilling reason for part of that figure: “Pepper plants stand 3 feet high and yield chiles about 3 inches long, dimensions perfectly suited to child pickers.”
That’s presumably the kind of thing the Labor Secretariat is going after. But when Navarrete boasts that “the number of children working has decreased by 500,000,” he seems to be talking about all kids with jobs, from the abused under-aged chile pickers to the 17-year-old earning some pocket money bagging groceries at Superama for a few hours after school.
We don’t know for sure because we’re not told. No age is ever mentioned in the story. Nor any specific examples. The suspicion is that we're getting the most impressive-sounding numbers instead of the most meaningful ones.
It’s still good news on balance that fewer minors are working now, regardless of what kind of work it might be. But it's not as encouraging as the following observation in a very readable World Bank article on child labor in Mexico: “On the bright side, there are 40% less children between 12 and 14 years old that work now than just 10 years ago. At the same time, more go to school – 93% of 12-to-14-year-olds attend classes.”
That fact is from January of 2013 The Peña Nieto administration, which started in December of 2012, can’t take credit for it. It wasn’t mentioned by Navarrete. But it’s the kind of progress we need more of.