Study: Mexico to blame for nearly half of child labor in Latin America

Mexican children sit on a curbside. (grapeman/flickr)

A recent study has found that Mexico is a leader in child labor, home to nearly half of all children and adolescents who are employed in Latin America.

The study, published Monday by the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), said there are some 3.6 million Mexican children and adolescents between five and 17 years old who are employed, and that six out of every 10 children in Mexico are looking for an “informal but honest” way to survive.

Víctor Inzúa Canales, a faculty member at UNAM’s National School of Social Work, told the newspaper El Universal that these children and teenagers should not work because “they have not enjoyed their childhood… but in the current state of the country families in extreme poverty resort to them to contribute.”

According to Mexican labor laws, working hours for children under 16 can not exceed six hours a day, but research indicates that over 36 percent of Mexico’s employed youth work more. Of the child population that works, 42.5% do not receive any income for it; 19.1% receive up to twice the daily minimum wage (160 pesos) and three out of 10 receive only one minimum wage, according to the study.

In a bulletin released by UNAM, Inzúa Canales said his previous research has indicated that Mexico’s young female workers face additional burdens. A family that relies on its business in a public market may not allow a son to attend school, for example, but will allow a daughter to go — doubling or even tripling her work burden when considering traditional expectations for girls to take care of domestic work and childcare.

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The expert called for the eradication of child labor in all its forms, and to generate public policies that ensure the protection of children and the full exercise of their human rights.

“Otherwise we will continue this phenomenon of working children who, over time, will turn to the streets to find their livelihoods and their freedom, sometimes in exchange for their dignity,” he said.

In poor, rural regions of Mexico, the majority of children and adolescents that join the workforce do so out of economic necessity. According to the study, over 23 percent of working children said they work for pleasure or to help at home, while nearly one-quarter said they do it in order to pay for schooling and/or their own expenses.

Education experts have for years been concerned about Mexico’s low rates of school attendance and quality education levels. A 2015 study by UNESCO revealed that at least 21 percent of all Mexican youth between the ages of seven and 14 (around 651,000 children) drop out of school, mostly to join the work force.

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One of the ways Mexico has tried to keep children in school instead of work is through the Prospera (Prosper) program. The 1997 program offers what NGOs call “conditional cash transfers”, giving parents payments as incentives to keep their children in school in exchange for meeting certain requirements and attending workshops on sex education and family planning.

The Mexican government gave $500m to 6.1 million families in 2015, according to data provided by Prospera.

While Mexico has seen incredible growth in its national educational system in recent years, experts say the system has always overlooked the country’s poorest and indigenous communities. The Mexican government spends more on education than any other member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, but still scores dead last in education standards.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com