Chained to misery: child labor in Michoacán

Close to 150 children work the chili fields in Michoacán under extreme conditions while their parents refuse help from local government
Child workers in Michoacán – Photo: Rodolfo Ayala/EL UNIVERSAL
Carlos Arrieta
Coahuayana, Michoacán
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Mud is the coarse and sticky carpet on which the barefoot and bruised feet of children walk; the irrigation ditch on the fringe of their campsite is the pool, bathtub, and laundry room of their mothers. There are almost 150 child workers in the fields of Coahuayana, Michoacán, destined to live in misery, for their parents refuse to accept help from either the local or state government.

Almost 10 kilometers away from the town of Coahuayana, close to 300 farmers built a campsite out of old wood, cardboard, and out of these 300, 148 are children who work the fields of the town, together with 90 indigenous people from the state of Guerrero, according to documents obtained by EL UNIVERSAL.

26 minors belong to families which come from Colima, 7 from Chiapas, 5 from Tabasco, 4 from Jalisco, 1 from Zacatecas, and 15 from other towns in Michoacán.

A working day for children and adults begins at 8:00 and ends at 17:00. According to them, the town of Coahuayana is one of the safest in the country, and the one with better wages – MXN$200 (USD$10.6*) a day, per farmer.

Despite their culture and traditions dictate women are not allowed to talk to strangers or venture their opinions without the authorization of their community leader, Margarita agrees to a brief chat. She's the mother of two children and is expecting a third. Her pregnancy doesn't stop her from going deep into the furrows of the fields, under the hot weather typical of the coast of Michoacán.

She barely speaks Spanish as her native tongue is Mixtec. In what little Spanish she knows, she says work is hard but being farmers is the only thing they know how to do. In January and May, they will move to Jalisco to work the fields there.

(Child workers in Michoacán – Photo: Rodolfo Ayala/EL UNIVERSAL )

Two decades receiving domestic migrants

Alma Delia Valencia Cisneros, manager of Indigenous and Immigration Affairs at the town hall of Coahuayana, explains that the domestic immigration phenomenon in the chili fields has over two decades. During a walk through the area, she claims the numbers of domestic migrants are on the rise since 15 years ago, when families living under extreme poverty conditions first arrived.

Valencia Cisneros states wages in Coahuayana are triple of what they would make in their native states, reason why more migrants arrive here, seeking work.

She claims working the chili fields is a business the entire community is devoted to, as parents are forced to move with their children and entire families work the fields.

As we walk the campsite, it's evident conditions here are unhealthy. You can see more beer and soda cans rather than food packages. The children – dressed in worn and dirty clothes, if at all – don't go to school. Patriarchs of migrant communities refuse any help offered to improve their living conditions. It's a matter of customs and traditions which has made them exceedingly suspicious and mistrustful.

Valencia Cisneros claims they have done their best to talk to the leaders to agree upon some improvements but there's no much progress. Government officials say migrants have been a challenge, given that the local government is, ultimately, responsible for providing an education, food, and health services to minors.

During an interview with the director of the Comprehensive Family Development System (DIF) of Coahuayana, María Danelia Chávez highlights that due to the vulnerable status of child workers, they are a priority for the System. In addition to healthcare sessions, they also provide breakfast to the children from Monday to Friday, a meal approved by health authorities.

(Child workers in Michoacán – Photo: Rodolfo Ayala/EL UNIVERSAL )

Moreover, Danelia Chávez told us the construction of a new shelter for migrant workers is about to be concluded, despite the initial reaction of the patriarchs was that of rejection. This new complex aims to provide better conditions for all, especially the children.

Regarding education, the DIF launched the first education center for child workers in December but thus far only nine kids were registered for preschool and 12 for elementary school.

For Karla Serrano, a preschool teacher who has been teaching child workers for three academic years, teaching these kids has been a rewarding experience. She remembers at the beginning the children didn't even know the names of the colors but progress has been made.

Children here would like to go to school but they rather do the same thing their parents do: work the fields, earn money.

A local businessman, who has asked to remain anonymous, praised the quality of the labor of these domestic migrant communities and while he doesn't agree with children working the fields, he claims there's nothing to be done to stop the practice.

“We cannot take them away from their parents and split up the families, which is exactly what will happen if we asked them to leave them alone,” he says.

For him, children working alongside their parents is part of the roots, culture, and costumes of these families.

(Child workers in Michoacán – Photo: Rodolfo Ayala/EL UNIVERSAL )

On November 25, 2017, José Noguez, an official agent of the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, estimated that during the high season, over 120,000 children work the fields in Michoacán.

For the Human Rights and Migrant commissions, these children seem to be invisible, since the last visit they did to the fields to document the situation of the minors was in 2005.

*At an exchange rate of USD$1 = MXN$ 18.71


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