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At a glance: Mexico

Child migrant workers in Mexico miss out on education and a safe environment

© UNICEF/2007/Ramos
This 10-year old boy in Sinaloa State, Mexico, has been working as a seasonal migrant farm worker since he was 7.

By Thomas Nybo

SINALOA STATE, Mexico, 2 March 2007 – For migrant farm workers, the work day often begins long before the sun rises. Today, Javier and a few of the other workers huddle around a fire for warmth until the boss arrives and signals them to start working.

Javier (not his real name) is just 10 years old, but he has been working seasonally in these fields since he was 7. He will spend the next eight hours picking chilli peppers. For his efforts, he will earn the equivalent of about seven US dollars.   “When we get in the field, we start filling our buckets with chilli peppers,” he says. “We have to remove the stems with our fingers. The boss assigns us a number to keep track of our progress. When you finish filling a bucket, he asks you what your number is.”  Once Javier finishes working, he will attend a school run by the company that employs him and his family. He’ll study for only two or three hours and then return to camp to reunite with his family and get some sleep before the next work day begins.

Migrants ‘an excluded minority’

Every harvest season, an estimated 300,000 children between the ages of 6 and 14 migrate to northern Mexico along with their parents, who have been contracted to work in the fields. At about age 10, half of those children begin working, and the number rises sharply as they get older.  Only 1 in 10 of the child workers attends school, and even fewer finish a primary education. Migrant farm workers typically arrive in Sinaloa in September or October and work until early May.

© UNICEF video
Some 300,000 children migrate to northern Mexico with their parents every harvest season, and many end up working in the fields.

Most of the children working in the fields are not only deprived of an education but also face considerable dangers. In January, David Salgado Aranda, 9, was run over and killed by a tractor while he was picking tomatoes.  UNICEF believes that protecting children from exploitation is an integral part of ensuring their right to survival, and to a quality education.

“The fact that they’re migrants means that they move from place to place, and so nobody feels completely responsible for fulfilling their basic needs and protecting their rights,” says UNICEF Child Protection Officer Theresa Kilbane. “Their education is at a different level than the education that’s offered to local children. So they live as an excluded minority within the country.”

A long way to go

Taking into account the particular needs of migrant children in the classroom, UNICEF is working to improve the quality of their education by providing school kits, books and other materials. UNICEF Mexico Goodwill Ambassador César Costa recently helped distribute backpacks and school kits to children living in migrant worker camps.

Although there are some examples of successful cooperation between government, farm owners and local communities to provide education and a safe environment for migrant children, more needs to be done.

“The issue now is to significantly expand the coverage to reach all children,” says Ms. Kilbane. “UNICEF promotes partnerships with the private sector, the public sector, the government, with civil society, to come together and make a difference for these children who have traditionally been excluded in Mexico.”

But many companies don’t want to cooperate with these institutions to improve the living conditions of the migrant workers. There is still a long way to go until children like Javier will be able to receive a quality education.

Michael Klaus contributed to this story from Mexico City.




13 February 2007:
UNICEF correspondent Thomas Nybo reports on child migrant workers in Sinaloa State, Mexico.
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