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A little work

12 June 2009

Having been a child laborer myself and profiting from it (I had the same newspaper route from the time I was 12 until I graduated from high school, mostly because the newspaper chain would give me a scholarship … though having spent my adolescence having to get up 365 days a year at 5:45 AM, I developed a life-long allergy to alarm clocks), I don’t think all child labor is necessarily exploitative.

Probably the happiest child I’ve ever seen was “working” …sort of:  a three year old acting as product demonstrator for her dad, as he was selling hand-crafted toys on the Zocalo in Oaxaca.  Javier, who had an appliance repair shop in the local on the first floor of the house where I lived for a while in Mexico City often had Javier Junior (who was 10) in after school, and if I go into the corner abarrotes here while the senora is making dinner, sometimes the clerk is the 8 year old (“MAMAAAAA!  Donde est…???”) .   And, back in the dark ages when internet cafes were first springing up on every corner, an entrepreneural neighbor bought a couple of computers, invested in a Telmex line, put an entry way into her living room through a french window facing the street, and — put the 12 year old to work as on-site guru.

The 12-year old computer geek was probably top of the line when it came to his family job, but it’s not that unusual to see children at the family business (and it may be safer than a day care center).  In some situations, like the internet cafe or my neighborhood grocery, it’s simply that the family lives at the shop, and that’s where the kids are.

Not every job though, can be seen as “family quality time” nor as apprenticeship (nor does it lead to a scholarship).    The children working as  street vendors get the most notice from foreign visitors (and despite the old stories, these aren’t from some “rent a waif” agency, but the beggar or vendor’s own children), about half of underage workers are on farms… and most are working more than 35 hours a week.

Legally, children under 14 are not supposed to be working at all (though whether ringing up the register in the family shop now and again, or learning how to fix a blender like Javier junior should even be considered as child labor is questionable).  The 1917 Constitution was, after all, and Mexico’s constitution was the first in the world to include an entire section (Article 123, which is the name of several streets and colonias throughout the country) devoted to working conditions and even spelled out basics of modern child labor law.

Given the primacy of family rights in Mexican law, there is probably not much difference between a 12-year old Mexican waitress serving up meals a few hours after school (often still in her uniform) and a kid in Nebraska expected to help his dad clean out the garage on a Saturday afternoon, walk the dog every morning and do the laundry while mom is at work.   Or being expected to milk the family cow and pick the family corn.

But this is not 1917, and the work being done by rural children is not a family outing.   These are “jornalaro” — day laborer or migrant worker — families where the parents are already underpaid and overworked.  Short of a radical change in the way agriculture is done and food is produced, cheap tomatoes in U.S. supermarkets and strawberries in December in Canada depend in large part on child labor in Mexico.

Today is “International day of child labor” (and, no, there are no Hallmark cards to mark the occasion).  Globally, one in twelve children work in dangerous or exploitative jobs:  prostitutes, child soldiers, miners, street vendors, beggars… and farm workers.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary O'Grady permalink
    12 June 2009 2:10 pm

    Some home-schoolers in the US, including some with whom I am acquainted, use their children as free labor in the guise of occupational training. That would be all right if the academic aspects of the children’s education were not therefore neglected, but unfortunately all too often it is, and the future choice of occupations for the children winds up severely limited.

  2. 13 June 2009 6:17 pm

    This is an excellent and important post. In the interests of children and their families, distinctions should be made — is the work after-school in the family business with little or no exploitation or is it in the fields instead of school, instead of rest, etc…
    or in the streets as beggars under the heavy hand of an exploitative master, etc. In addition, with child labor laws one has to acknowledge immediately the pressing needs of very poor families which lead to the exploitation of their children. These are society’s responsibility. Your post above on NAFTA is related to this.

  3. 14 June 2009 1:31 pm

    My earliest childhood memories are of sitting under grape vines as my mom, grandmother, and aunts tide vines along rows of grapes that were three quarters of a mile long. When I turned 12, I began tying vines with the women in my family before and after school in the fall. In junior high, I began picking grapes with my grandparents every summer from 5:30am to 4:00pm. That first summer I earned $100. All of my friends and their parents who were more or less from the same village in Nuevo León worked as family units as temporary workers in the summer. Our fathers and grandfathers worked year around for the same growers. Now as a history professor, I don’t know much other than I don’t want to go back to the fields, but damn if it wasn’t a very happy time in my life working with my family and understanding why my grandparents made such sacrifices for their posterity.

    I was not exploited, but instead helped pay my own way.

  4. 14 June 2009 5:08 pm

    I agree with Jaime. I was thinking of migrant kids in the US deprived of school and health along with their parents. Where we live, our neighbors — parents and kids and uncles and aunts go to pick coffee. It is the way it is.

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