David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Peace & Justice
The Global Economy Promotes Child Labor
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO (5/28/96) - The face of the global economy is increasingly the face of a child. It's not a child at play, or studying in school. It is the face of a child at work.

In recent months, two international conferences have pulled away some of the veils hiding this face. One, ironically, was the gathering of bankers and industrialists in Davos, Switzerland in January, a group described by New York Times correspondant Thomas Friedman as "the ultimate capitalist convention." The other meeting brought together labor organizers, human rights activists and advocates for children in Mexico City - the Second International Independent Tribunal Against Child Labor.

When two organizations, with such diametically opposed visions of the world, see the same danger, its reality is hardly debatable.

The Davos World Economic Forum brings together the political figures and financial elite who write the trade deals, manage institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and design the economic rules of life for most of the world's people. Instead of celebrating the spectacular growth of transnational corporations and banks, however, and their continuing integration of the world's economy, the founder and managing director of the Davos forum speak fearfully of the future.

"Economic globalization has entered a critical phase," predicted Klaus Schwab and Claude Smadja, in an essay published on the conference's opening day. "A mounting backlash against its effects, especially in the industrial democracies, is threatening a very disruptive impact on economic activity and social stability in many countries."

In Mexico City two months later, witnesses from 18 countries condemned the growing labor of children worldwide as the most dramatic consequence of that economic globalization, and a principal cause of the backlash feared in Davos.

Doris Crosby, secretary-general of the General Confederation of Workers, one of Peru's largest union federations, shocked participants when she announced that the number of working children had grown from 500,000 in 1993, to 1.5 million just two years later. She quoted census figures compiled by the Peruvian government itself. "We're going from being a civilized country in the third world to a new, fourth world," she said.

Crosby blamed privatization programs for much of the increase. "Once a business has been privatized," she explained, it goes through a phase of getting rid of the people who work there. Then these same businesses rehire workers, but at the minimum monthly wage of 132 soles, with no pensions, benefits, unions or rights. Parents can't possibly support a family on this wage, so they have to tell their children to go to work." The Peruvian government's poverty line is set at 426 soles.

Peru's working children catch fish with their parents, work in mines, go out to the fields to harvest crops, bake bread, and 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 even lift," she recounted despairingly.

Privatization of government enterprises has affected hundreds of thousands of workers in Peru. The letter of intent, signed by Peru's President Alberto Fujimori in order to receive loans from the International Monetary Fund, spells out the economic policies of the government, including the amount of privatization, according to Crosby.

Almost every witness at the Mexico City tribunal described the same experience with privatization programs. They are one of the most common conditions for loans from the IMF and the World Bank, providing increased investment opportunities for domestic and international corporations.

In the last six years in Mexico, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been eliminated by privatization. Here too the number of children in large cities who not only work in the streets, but live in them, has grown rapidly. Emilio Krieger, the dean of Mexican labor attorneys, estimates that 15 million children work in Mexico.

In the Mexican countryside, just south of the Mexico/U.S. border, child labor is growing so great that school attendence is actually declining, while the population is increasing and the average age gets younger. Some rural schools in the Mexicali Valley have even been abandoned for lack of students.

At the Mexico City tribunal, Gema Lopez Limon, a researcher from the University of Baja California, described crews of dozens of families in the valley who bring their children to harvest green onions. The piecerates are so low families cannot eat with the income of parents alone. Further south in the tomato fields of Sinaloa, rural teachers tell stories of asking young children what they ate before coming to school. Tomatoes, they say, stolen from the fields.

Tomatoes and green onions are grown for export, not for sale in Mexico. Many U.S. growers and food processors now run farms in Mexico and Latin America, or contract with local growers. Their crops are sold in the markets of Los Angeles, Tokyo and London. Oxnard-based Boscovich Farms, for instance, stopped growing green onions south of Riverside the year NAFTA was adopted, leaving over 200 farmworkers without jobs. Its green onion production was moved to the Mexicali Valley, where child labor is commonplace.

"Trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT promised protections for workers," Lopez 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 Labour Organization formulated Convention 138, which prohibits child labor, performed by children of mandatory school age. Only 58 countries have signed the accord.

In 1989, however, the United Nations formulated another convention, number 32. This one leaves it up to each government to determine the age at which child labor is permitted, and under what circumstances. Many countries which refused to ratify Convention 138 have adopted the U.N. approach. The Mexico City tribunal noted that as the number of working children globally has climbed to over 150 million, international bodies have sought to regulate child labor, rather than prohibit it.

The United States hasn't ratified either agreement.

"Global economic policies promote unemployment among adults," Maria Estela Rios Gonzalez concluded. 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."

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