MEXICO CITY — Adriana Salgado, 10, spends her days in a field in northwestern Mexico, picking spinach, cabbage and other vegetables that fill American salad bowls.
Salgado attends school for one hour a day, and she doesn’t know how to read. Her 15-year-old sister, who works with her, can’t read either. Salgado had an 8-year-old brother, too, until he was crushed by a tractor while working in a tomato field last year in a case that garnered nationwide attention.
About 300,000 youngsters such as Salgado work illegally in Mexico’s fields, the United Nations Children’s Fund says. In some cases, child farm labor is used to produce goods that are exported to the USA. The practice persists despite harsh criticism from international groups, rules imposed by U.S. distributors and increasingly strident warnings from the Mexican government.
That Adriana continues to work despite her brother’s death indicates the depth of the problem in Mexico. Cruz Salgado, her father, says his family needs the $7 a day Adriana contributes.
Otherwise, the $20 a day he and his wife earn as migrant workers wouldn’t be enough to get by.
“I wish they didn’t have to work,” he said by telephone from a migrant camp in the state of Sinaloa. “But we need the money.”
David Salgado died Jan. 6, 2007, at the Los Pinos tomato farm in Sinaloa.
“He was going to empty his bucket, and the tractor driver didn’t see him and went right over him,” Cruz Salgado said, his voice choking up.
Adriana Salgado rattled off the names of other children who work with her on a farm run by Agrícola Buen Año, a wholesaler of Asian vegetables that exports to the USA and Canada.
She recited the produce they pick: baby lettuce, Chinese cabbage and spinach.
From 6 to 7 p.m., she attends a school run by the company and staffed by student teachers provided by the Mexican government.
Asked whether she enjoyed working, she said, “Not much.”
“I like school,” she said.
Child labor is a worldwide phenomenon: About 132 million kids work in farms and plantations around the globe, according to the United Nations.
There has been some progress in eradicating the problem in Mexico during the past decade, according to Ririki Social Intervention, a Mexican group that campaigns for children’s rights. The problem has not been wiped out because of Mexico’s vast wealth and educational disparities, plus pressure on small farmers from the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada, says Nayeli Ramírez, the group’s director.
Mexican law prohibits children under 14 from working, and those 14 to 16 can work only in jobs that do not “jeopardize their development.”
Nevertheless, children under 15 make up 20% of Mexico’s migrant farmworkers, the Mexican Labor Secretariat says. They tend to be less educated and less healthy than the population at large. Less than 10% of these children attend school, and 42% suffer from some form of malnutrition, government studies show.
The work they perform is often dangerous. In December, nine children were killed when a truck carrying coffee pickers flipped over in Mexico’s central Puebla state.
The owner of the farm where David Salgado died, Agrícola Paredes, paid $3,308 in funeral expenses, according to a report by the Mexican Senate. It refused to pay any further compensation, claiming the boy was on a public road and not a formal employee, the Senate report said. Representatives of Agrícola Paredes declined to talk to USA TODAY. The company sells tomatoes, bell peppers and eggplant in the USA under the SPV, Chelita and Paris brands.
H.M. Distributors of Rio Rico, Ariz., one of the company’s main importers, said it had not heard about the boy’s death and was unaware of any children working on its suppliers’ farms. Vice President Rene Monteverde said it was difficult for importers to make sure farms obey the rules. “We’re not there every day, so it’s tough,” Monteverde said.
After the tragedy, U.S. distributors are increasingly putting rules against child labor into their supplier contracts, said Eduardo Garcia, operations manager of the Agrícola Nieto farms in Guanajuato state.
The ban on child labor is difficult for the government to enforce because in most cases the children do not appear on the farms’ payroll, said Teresa Rojas, a professor at Mexico’s National Teachers’ University who has studied the phenomenon.
Because adult workers earn bonuses for picking more than their daily quota, parents with “helpers” bring home more money. Farms save money because they do not have to pay social security for the youngsters.
“You never find the child on the payroll; it’s always the head of the household,” Rojas said. “That’s part of the problem. These children are invisible (to the government).”
In many farms, children as young as 5 scoot on their hands and knees along rows of vegetables, cutting weeds, she said. In the central state of Puebla, children work as “burros,” carrying buckets of coffee beans down from the mountains.
The Mexican government has started building day care centers nationwide and is boosting the number of grants given to families so children can continue studying.
The Salgado family’s employer, Agrícola Buen Año manager Let Tran, said he has no children on the payroll but noted that many workers insist on keeping their children with them during the day.
“I (run) a school, and nobody wants to put their kids in school. I (run) a day care, and nobody puts their kid in day care,” Tran said. “It’s really hard, because we’re trying to improve their lives.”
Hawley is Latin America correspondent for USA TODAY and The Arizona Republic