David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Child Labor - The Hidden Harvest of Mexico's Export Farms
by David Bacon

MEXICALI VALLEY, BAJA CALIFORNIA (7/27/96) - From a distance Muranaka Farms' green onion field, in the heart of the Mexicali Valley, looks almost festive. Dozens of large colored sheets are strung between pieces of iron rebar, providing shelter from the sun and rippling in the morning breeze. The soft conversations of hundreds of people, sitting in the rows next to great piles of scallions, fills the air. The vegetable's pungent scent is everywhere.

Small toddlers wander among the seated workers, some of them nursing on baby bottles, and others, their faces smeared with dirt, chewing on the onions. A few sleep in the rows, or in little makeshift beds of blankets in the vegetable bins.

A closer look reveals that the toddlers are not the only children in this field. As the morning sun illuminates the faces of the workers, it reveals dozens of young girls and boys. By rough count, perhaps a quarter of the workers here are anywhere from 6 or 7 years old to 15 or 16. The crew foreman, who doesn't want to reveal his name, says it's normal for his 300-person crew to be made up of families, including many kids. He says they work for Muranaka Farms.

Gema Lopez Limon moves slowly down the rows. She has a slight limp, which makes her careful and deliberate about her steps. She is a stranger to the families seated here in the dirt, but she's obviously not a very threatening one.

She stops next to Maria, working alongside her mother, and talks to her softly. Maria is 12 years old. "My grandmother told me this year that we didn't have enough money for me to go to school," she explains. "At first I stayed home to take care of my little sister, but it was boring, and sometimes I was scared being by ourselves all day. So I came to work here. We need the money."

Lopez takes careful note of what Maria says. Lopez is a well-known investigator of child labor in Mexico, a professor in the school of education at the Autonomous University of Baja California in Mexicali. She has an easy way with children. They talk to her like a relative, or someone who just came over from the next field.

Lopez moves on down the row.

Honorina Ruiz is six years old. She sits in front of a pile of green onions in the same field. She notices Lopez coming towards her, but she keeps working, grabbing onions from the top of her pile to make a bunch. In a little gesture of self-consciousness, she pulls her sweater away from her face.

Her hands are very quick. She lines up eight or nine onions, straightening out their roots and tails. Then she knocks the dirt off, puts a rubber band around them, and adds the bunch to those already in the box beside her. She's too shy to say more than her name, but she's obviously proud to be able to do what her brother Rigoberto, at 13, is already very good at.

Lopez talks to her mother for a few minutes, and then moves on again.

In another onion field about a mile away, Lopez finds another crew. Here Lorena, also 12, works in an even larger group of 500 people. She's here with her sisters Lupe and Cynthia, her mother Maria, and her little brother Agustin, who at four years old is too young to work. Lorena says she's been coming to the fields every year for seven years, beginning at the same age as Honorina. "I finished first grade in primary school," she says, "but then I left." Her mother adds that she tried to send her back, "but what I can earn here by myself isn't enough for us to live on, so she had to come help us."

Foreman Samuel Cerna says that this field, in Ejido San Quintan, is being farmed by Mario Cota. Cerna explains that Cota only farms in the Mexicali Valley, but has work for seven months of the year for the crew working here. All the onions are packed in ice and sent to California and Great Britain. Although Cota would not be interviewed, the secretary in his office says he contracts with three U.S. growers, and that he denies that children work in his fields.

If the denial is not very convincing, in large part this is due to the work Lopez and a small core of human rights activists have done over the last five years. In her tours of the fields she is often accompanied by another well-known opponent of child labor, Federico Garcia Estrada, the human rights prosecutor for the state of Baja California. Other Mexican states have human rights commissions. But in Baja California, human rights violations have the status of offenses, meriting a separate prosecutor's office.

Garcia, and the lawyers and other personnel who work under him, have won broad popular support for that office. It hasn't made this tall, lanky lawyer very popular with the conservative National Action Party, which governs Baja California. But that support has made him a voice to be respected.

Together Lopez, Garcia and their compañeros are trying to mobilize public pressure on the Mexican government to enforce its own child protection laws.

Child labor is not legal in Mexico, any more than it is in the U.S. Article 123 of the Mexican Constitution says that children under 14 may not work, and those between 14 and 16 can only work 6 hours a day. Article 22 of the federal labor law also prohibits the employment of children younger than 14, and permits those between 14 and 16 to work only by special permission, if they've already completed their mandatory education.

But according to Lopez, child labor is growing under the impact of the country's successive economic crises, and the rise in export-oriented agriculture. Joint ventures between Mexican and U.S. growers, producing for the U.S., European and Japanese markets, "are achieving greater competitiveness at the cost of children working in the fields," she says. "We're creating a workforce without education, condemned to the lowest wages, and to periods of great unemployment."

While no official statistics are collected on the number of these working children, the government's Secretariat of Labor and Social Forecasting estimates that 800,000 children under 14 work in different sections of the economy. Based on the 1990 census, the Secretariat of Public Education guesses that over 2.5 million children between the ages of 6 and 14 don't attend school.

According to Lopez and Garcia, 3000 children work in the green onion harvest in the Mexicali Valley. Beginning in October and running through June, the season coincides with the school year, and has a dramatic impact on school attendance. While the population of the valley grows, and the city of Mexicali itself now boasts over 600,000 inhabitants, rural schools have lost children almost every year.

The Alfredo A. Uchurtu primary school draws it students from Ejido Veracruz II, in the heart of the green onion district. Teacher Pedro Gonzalez Hernandez is another seasoned veteran of the fight to keep children out of the fields. It's a fight, he says, they're not winning. Of the 252 students who registered at Uchurtu last September, over 40 were no longer coming at all by the end of the season.

Gonzalez talks at his desk in front of a room full of second graders. As he cuts decorations out of red construction paper for the classroom, he punctuates his points with jabs of the scissors. "Attendance began to fall in 1987, when the school had 363 children," he recalls. "That's the year we had the first economic collapse."

In rural Mexico, "maestro" (teacher in Spanish) is more than the name of a job. It's a title of respect conveyed by rural communities which look at teachers as leaders and spokespeople. For the best ones, like Gonzalez, the title is a badge of social activism. Schools are resources communities must fight for. Teachers, who are some of the lowest-paid workers in Mexico, usually have to use part of their salaries to buy everything from notebooks to pencils. They are also the people who collect whatever statistics there are on rural communities, especially on their children.

Of the sixteen boys in Uchurtu's sixth grade, seven only come to class two or three times a week. Of the eleven girls, three have the same problem. "For these children, we've tried to devise a kind of study they can do at home," Gonzalez says. "It will never be as good as actually attending class, but at least it's some alternative."

Even in May, the temperature in the Mexicali Valley climbs to 100 degrees, and the afternoon heat radiates up from Uchurtu's playground. A few trees provide shade for the school's ten low-slung buildings, which look a little like portable classrooms in the U.S. Some of them aren't used anymore because of declining enrollment, and they created a problem with vandalism for the school at night. But the community found a family to live in one of the unused buildings, and the problem disappeared. Gonzalez says that keeping the school's appearance from deteriorating helps maintain the morale of the students, and makes the school more attractive for them.

Teachers in Baja California have tried other ways to keep children in school. They convinced the state government to offer stipends of 118 pesos a month, plus food coupons, to rural children who would otherwise have to work. Twenty-five kids at Uchurtu get the "beca," and all of them are still in class. But there aren't enough stipends, and there are rumors that children of government functionaries take some of them. The schools were supposed to begin giving children breakfast this year, but the program has been held up by red tape.

"We have to admit," Gonzalez says, "that not only can't they come, but that often they don't want to. With all the problems they've had in keeping up, when they do come, they face a lot of blame."

Presiliano Martinez, a rural teacher at the Escuela Aquiles Serdan in neighboring Colonia Elias, cautions that "if you scold the children for the times when they don't come to school, then they just don't come back at all." But Martinez doesn't agree with Gonzalez about formulating curricula for part-time attendees. "They must come every day," he asserts. He seems less of an activist, and more a man trying to hold onto the educational values and principles of his own youth.

Martinez' school used to have a teacher for each of six grades. Now there are only three. Aquiles Serdan seems older than Uchurtu, and has a large, ornate adobe building with the name proudly emblazoned above the door. But the building is unused, and the actual classrooms are smaller, cinderblock boxes.

At a countryside crossroads in Colonia Madero, a third school sits in the corner of a ploughed field. The furrows come up almost to the edge of the two small buildings. This school has been abandoned entirely. "The people went away, looking for work, and the school was left without children. At last the teacher had only two left, and they closed it," a neighbor told Lopez.

"We realize that what drives the children into the fields is that the wages their parents receive isn't enough to support the family," Gonzalez comments bitterly. "We're not dreaming we can end this. But we have to do something."

This year the companies pay 80 or 81 centavos (11¢) for a dozen bunches of onions. For an adult, this can amount to fifty pesos on a good day. A young child, on the other hand, might produce 20 or 30 dozen bunches - half that of an adult.

Workers in the fields say that the growers haven't raised the piece rate from last year, despite big price increases for groceries. In January of 1995, the price of a gallon of milk was 7 pesos. It rose to 15 pesos a year later, and to 17.50 this spring. A gallon of milk now costs almost half a day's wages for an adult. In 1995, the price of a chicken went from 4 to 10 pesos. A kilo (2 pounds) of beans used to cost 3.50. Now it costs 9 pesos.

At the height of the season, families sometimes stay out in the fields until dark, just to earn enough to eat. "We start work," Lorena says, "at 5:30 in the morning, and we work at least until 4:00." Adults and children work the same hours. There is no overtime pay, except for work on Sunday. When children start out working with their families, they work under a parent's number. But by 12 or 13, according to Lopez, they usually have their own number and get paid separately.

The Mexicali Valley extends south from the southern border of California and Arizona. It is an irrigated desert. Despite the cloth shelters, it gets brutally hot during the day in the late spring, and in the winter it can go down to freezing. In the Muranaka and Cota fields, there was one portable bathroom for the whole crew. A metal drum on wheels held drinking water.

Conditions for workers in the Mexicali Valley are like those which farmworkers in California suffered in the 1930s and 40s, before the era of the United Farm Workers. They're like a magnet for California growers.

Boscovich Farms, with headquarters in Oxnard, is one of a number of U.S. row crop producers who now have operations in Mexico. In 1994, Boscovich stopped growing green onions in the Perris Valley, south of Riverside. Farmworkers who lost their jobs as a result, with the help of the Hermandad Nacional Mexicana, a social service agency in Perris, documented that their jobs had been moved south of the border. As a result, the Department of Labor and the Employment Development Department certified the workers' application to receive extended unemployment and retraining benefits under the NAFTA-TAA program.

Growers in Salinas and Watsonville, who also farm green onions in the Mexicali Valley, include Fresh Choice, Frank Capurro, VegaMix and Nunes Farms. Arizona-based Phoenix Vegetable Growers has moved across the border, as has Muranaka, which comes from Oxnard.

According to Juan Pablo Hernandez Diaz, president of the Agricultural Association of Vegetable Producers of the Mexicali Valley, most U.S. growers contract with a local Mexican grower, providing chemicals and loans, agreeing to distribute and sell the boxes of green onions at the wholesale market price. A few U.S. companies, Hernandez says, run their own Mexican operations, or have formed joint ventures with Mexican growers.

Carisa Wright of Muranaka Farms says the company farms on both sides of the border, mostly on its own, but some by contract. In Mexico, it has operations in the Mexicali Valley, in Sonoita in Sonora, and in Maneadero further down the Baja peninsula. The company's vegetables, which include green onions, spinach, radishes, cilantro, parsley, kale, leeks and beets are processed in the packing sheds of the Empacadora Toluca in the heart of the green onion district.

Wright says Muranaka's operations in Mexico are profitable, and is expanding them. She declined to provide figures, but Mexican observers calculate that gross receipts to a grower from a hectare of green onions may reach 25,500 pesos, or $3,600. Some 10,000 hectares of Mexicali Valley are planted in green onions, which can be planted and harvested twice a year. Sometimes the onions alternate with another vegetable like radishes. "Most of our operations are labor intensive, so we do save money on labor costs by comparison with the U.S.," she concludes.

Muranaka management would not answer questions directly about their use of child labor. A letter from the company states that "as far as we know, our growers comply in the fullest with Mexican federal and state labor laws to the best of their abilities," and that therefore workers "are over the minimum legal working age."

At Fresh Choice, Greg Flood explained that the company didn't consider itself responsible for the employment practices of the Mexican growers with whom it contracts, and says that both his company and its Mexican partner obey all Mexican laws. He travels to the Mexicali Valley at least ten times a year. He's seen very young children of nursing age with their parents in the fields, which he attributed to the lack of child care. To him, the situation is like that of a hardware store owner who brings his son or daughter to work in the store with him.

Tom Nunes of the Nunes Company, a large vegetable grower in Salinas, uses the same Mexican contractor used by Fresh Choice. The Mexican grower grows and packs the green onions in ice, and sends them to the Nunes coolers in Salinas and Yuma. Nunes sells the onions at market prices, deducts the cost of seeds, cartons, loading, customs duties, and a charge for selling the onions, which he estimates at about 1¢ (U.S.) per bunch. What's left belongs to the Mexican grower.

Asked if he would consider charging an extra penny a bunch to his customers, in order to raise the wages paid to field workers, he responded that "a penny is what we charge for selling them. There's no incentive for us to do that." Nunes says that he can't tell his Mexican partner how to run his business.

"There are no green onions grown now in the U.S. in the winter, because they can't compete with the price of those grown in Mexico," Nunes says. "I wouldn't go over there if this competition didn't exist. It was a problem before NAFTA to some extent, but what's really causing this is the devaluation of the peso. What people are making there [in wages in Mexico] is nothing. The power of the market is stronger than all of us."

Hernandez, the president of the producers association, agrees that devaluation was a shot in the arm for the industry, which he says was in danger of disappearing. Now he estimates that the green onion harvest in the Mexicali Valley has a wholesale value of $50,000,000 - about 12,000,000 cartons selling for $3-5 apiece. He says the Mexican growers get $1-2 for each box.

Hernandez considers the crop a boon to the valley's residents, saying that it has provided nearly year-around employment since growers began planting green onions in 1966. Before that, workers only had employment during the cotton harvest for a few months during the summer. In the off-season, they had to leave the valley and migrate with other crops. At the beginning of the 90s, however, the cotton harvest failed. Families began to migrate again, and he says that families began going hungry again.

To Hernandez, the problem of child labor comes from the lack of childcare. "We could prohibit parents from bringing their children to the fields," he says, "but then we'd have a bigger problem. Kids would be left by themselves."

He admits, however, that Mexico's worsening economic crisis left parents feeling that there was no future for their children. "If there are no jobs for educated people," he asks, "or what an educated person can earn is less than what a family earns in the fields, what kind of future is there? When parents see engineers selling tacos for a living, why should they invest money they don't have anyway in sending their kids to school?"

"What makes our country attractive to U.S. growers," Lopez responds, "are low wages. We're told that if we make our country attractive enough for foreign investment, transnational corporations will come here to invest in greater productivity. Supposedly, that will lift us out of poverty. But does it? That investment produces wealth we never see. Meanwhile, we're stuck with miserable economic conditions."

Mexicali Valley agriculture, dependent on exports and the U.S. market, is a showcase for this economic policy, called structural adjustment, which is promoted by the Mexican government and the International Monetary Fund. The policy uses depressed wages to attract investment. To keep wages low, the government finds subsidies, Lopez says. Some are indirect, like meals for rural children and the stipends to keep them in schools. But some costs for growers are directly subsidized, such as irrigation water, which is much cheaper in Mexicali than it is just across the border in the Imperial Valley.

"What we need," she concludes, "is to produce food first for people to eat in Mexico, where people are actually hungry. No one eats these green onions here. If we have extra capacity to produce food after feeding ourselves, we can export the rest to the U.S. or anywhere else. These foreign companies bring jobs here to the fields. But what kind of jobs are they? They're jobs with no future."

Rural teacher Gonzalez says structural adjustment also means that Mexicans lose control over the rules for their own society. "Our laws say one thing, for instance, about child labor," he says, "but the reality is another, and everyone knows it. The companies may create jobs, but they have to pay more, so it doesn't have these consequences for children."

The analysis developed by Lopez, Gonzalez, Garcia and the activists on the border is not just rhetoric. They demand solutions. In March Lopez went to Mexico City, taking her accusation before the second International Independent Tribunal Against Child Labor . She brought with her children from the fields, to make sure the human face of child labor wasn't lost.

"Trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT promised protections for workers," Lopez testified. "But they don't prohibit child labor, they regulate it."

The tribunal brought witnesses from 18 countries to the huge auditorium of Mexico's largest hospital, the social security health complex in the capital. The explosive testimony of children made headlines in Mexico City newspapers, and sparked earnest television commentaries. It was a high point, after years of documentation in the green onion fields.

The tribunal concluded that the economic forces responsible for the growth of child labor in Mexico had the same effect in many countries. The number of working children globally has climbed to ----over 150 million. In a document issued after three days of formal hearings, tribunal judges called for the ratification of the International Labour Organization's Convention 138, which outlaws labor by children of mandatory school age.

Only 58 countries have signed the accord. Neither Mexico nor the U.S. have ratified it.

One of the principal organizers of the tribunal noted that international support for the convention was weakening under the impact of the marketplace. Maria Estela Rios Gonzalez, newly sworn-in as president of the Mexican National Association of Democratic Lawyers, accused supporters of the free market of hypocrisy. "They oppose every kind regulation on business, except where the labor of children is involved," she declared.

To get rid of the ILO blanket prohibition on child labor, the United Nations formulated another convention, number 32, in 1989. This one leaves it up to each government to determine the age at which child labor is permitted, and to regulate the circumstances under which children work. Many countries which refused to ratify Convention 138 have adopted the U.N. approach.

"Instead of saying that we should recognize that child labor exists, and therefore regulate it, I believe it should be eliminated," Rios says. "We cannot substitute the labor of countless children for the inadequate income of their parents. For all the history of humanity, adults have been the protectors and nurturers of children. Now we have children nurturing and protecting the adults. We are robbing them of their own future."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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