Free-trade pact raises concerns about exploitation of Mexico's child workers


REYNOSA, Mexico -- Mariana Garrocho Zuniga is 13 and the proud wearer of Delco badge No. 58491. She earns 67 cents an hour at the Delnosa plant of Delco, a General Motors Corp. subsidiary. Barely 5 feet tall and weighing about 98 pounds, Mariana does not seem strong enough to work a 48-hour week making --board components for Cadillacs. Under Mexican labor law, she shouldn't be working at all. The legal working age is 14.

Yesterday, President Bush met with President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to discuss the free-trade pact being negotiated by the United States, Canada and Mexico that could have a marked effect on Mariana and 12 million other children working in Mexico.

The agreement would create a North American free trade zone with 360 million consumers and an estimated annual output of $360 trillion.

Mr. Bush and trade proponents say the agreement will bring prosperity to Mexico, in turn benefiting children like Mariana who might have stayed in school had their families made decent wages.

They predict that the trade pact will enable a financially strapped Mexico to enforce its labor and environmental laws.

However, others fear that the trade agreement will only lead to increased exploitation of the children. They are concerned that hundreds of other U.S. firms will follow the lead of companies that have already located plants along the border to take advantage of Mexico's low wages, weak unions and lax enforcement of labor laws.

Mariana's case is among six child-labor violations found at facilities of three leading U.S. companies, which either hired underage children or worked them beyond what the law allows.

Besides General Motors, the other companies are the Zenith Electronics Corp. of Glenview, Ill., the largest U.S. television manufacturer, and the Duro Bag Manufacturing Co. of Ludlow, Ky., the nation's No. 1 maker of shopping bags.

General Motors and Zenith, the largest employers on the border, are strong backers of the trade agreement.

Of the six youngsters interviewed for this article, two were underaged girls -- Mariana at General Motors and another 13-year-old girl at the Duro plant in nearby Rio Bravo.

One youngster worked an illegal shift of 16 1/2 hours, and the three others also were working illegally long shifts.

Most of the children working here were reluctant to be interviewed for fear of losing their jobs, as Mariana did after a reporter inquired into her case.

Since the early 1980s, millions of Mexican families have found their lives uprooted with the collapse of the nation's economy under the weight of depressed oil prices, a huge foreign debt, triple-digit inflation and disastrous farm policies.

According to the Mexican Center for Children's Rights, there are 12 million working children in Mexico. The center said that 400,000 children quit mandatory primary school last year, most to seek work to help their struggling families.

"There was no other option but to work," says Mariana, whose face still has some baby fat.

After graduating from the sixth grade last June, she needed to help support her struggling family. So she defied her grandmother, lying about her age in order to meet the minimum-age requirement of 16 at the Delnosa plant.

She had hated school, but she loved the company and the job.

Her weekly take-home pay of $33 had provided nearly half the income for a grandmother, two brothers and a sister. Her fondest hope was to save enough money to become a beautician.

Those hopes were dashed Dec. 5, when executives at the Delnosa plant forced a weeping Mariana to resign after learning that her true age was 13, and not 16 as she had claimed.

Mariana was born in a rural area near the town of Panuco in Veracruz state, where her family had lived for generations as farmers and small businessmen.

Though the family struggled to keep things together, it soon became apparent that the situation was hopeless. Mariana's father left home to find work. Her mother died giving birth to a younger sister, Alejandrina.

The family was held together by Antonia Baltazar, Mariana's tough grandmother who decided to lead her four grandchildren to Reynosa, a Mexican city that had what few others could offer -- jobs.

For example, the Zenith complex here employs about 8,000 people, the Delco plant about 4,000 and the Duro plant about 900. Most of the workers are women between the ages of 16 and 22.

Like a lot of border towns, Reynosa has become the site of foreign-owned maquiladora plants that assemble products from imported materials. The plants pay taxes only on the value added to the product in Mexico before the finished products are sent back to the country of origin.

Besides a tax break, the maquiladora system, which is more than 80 percent American, has other characteristics -- weak labor unions, cheap wages, poorly enforced environmental laws and its closeness to the world's largest consumer market, the United States.

While the boom has produced hard-sought jobs, it also has spawned communities where people live in appalling conditions.

Mariana's cinder block shack has no indoor plumbing or electricity.

Its source of drinking water is a communal pipe 150 yards away. The outdoor toilet, along with scores of others in the Colonia Roma area, is subject to flooding during the fall's heavy rains.

Maria de Los Angeles Saldana Garcia is another 13-year-old worker. Maria seemed tired and listless one day after completing a 9 1/2 -hour shift making bags at Duro's plant. It was Nov. 25 -- her 14th birthday. "It's pretty tough, but I don't mind it," she sighed.

Three of her co-workers are her sister, Anaberta, and two other 15-year-olds, Magdalena Hernandez Manriquez and Guadalupe Camacho Colunga. Five days a week, the four girls work from 5 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., netting about 69 cents an hour.

Mexican law limits 15-year-olds to working six-hour shifts, with an hour's break after the first three hours.

In recent weeks production increased for Christmas, which meant that Magdalena and Guadalupe didn't sleep Saturdays.

They'd leave work at 2:30 a.m. only to return at 7 a.m. to work a 10-hour shift.

Randy Short, the Duro company's human resources director, said that no proof of age previously was required at the Rio Bravo plant. Job seekers simply indicated on an application form that they met the minimum age requirement.

As a result of being asked about the four girls, Duro is requiring that its young employees establish their true age with a birth certificate. If employees are found to be under 16, they will be fired, he said.

Another young worker is 16-year-old Santiago Leyva, who makes television parts at the Zenith plant. Santiago's normal shift is from 1:36 a.m. to 5:56 a.m, but on Saturdays he works from 1:36 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- 16 1/2 hours.

The Mexican Constitution stipulates that no one under the age of 18 may do such work at night and that overtime is limited to three hours per seven-hour night shift.

A Zenith spokesman acknowledged the infraction but said Santiago had requested night work so he could attend school during the day. The spokesman also said Santiago would be moved to a new shift that could accommodate both the law and his schooling.

Many of the children said they knew of other minors being employed by U.S. firms.

"In my section alone, there are six kids like me doing the same work I am doing," said Santiago, a handsome youth struggling to become an engineer.

Mariana said she knew of four other 13-year-old girls working at the Delnosa plant.

Marilyn Y. Grant, spokeswoman for GM's Delco Electronics Corp., said its Delnosa subsidiary was investigating Mariana's claims.

Ms. Grant also noted that Mariana had been hired after presenting a copy of a birth certificate showing she was 16, the plant's minimum hiring age.

The pressure to find a job forces many young workers to lie about their ages or to use phony documents or the birth certificate of an older brother or sister.

But Mexico's Federal Labor Law clearly assigns responsibility for determining proof of age to the employer.

A U.S. Embassy pamphlet on Mexican labor practices also warns prospective maquiladora employers that birth certificates are needed.

Agapito Gonzalez, a labor boss in nearby Matamoros, said that factories in Reynosa and Rio Bravo have been known to relax hiring standards because of high monthly turnover rates.

"When 15 percent of the workers are leaving every month, the factories begin to cut corners and youngsters get hired who shouldn't be," he said.

Elsewhere in Mexico, labor law enforcement depends on the vigilance of powerful trade unions, but here in Reynosa and Rio Bravo the unions are weak.

Moreover, there are only eight federal labor inspectors assigned to Tamaulipas state.

But none is assigned to cover Matamoros, the state's largest city and the one with the greatest concentration of foreign-owned plants, most of them American.

Although four inspectors are assigned here, the Mexican labor ministry did not to respond to a written request for information on child-labor violations in Reynosa or Matamoros.

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