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I. Overview

There are an estimated 8 to 11 million children under the age of 15 working in Mexico.1 A relatively small number of children under the age of 14 are reportedly employed in the export-oriented maquiladoras, or assembly factories, in the border region between Mexico and the United States.

II. Child Labor in Export Industries


Most of the manufactured products imported by the United States from Mexico are produced in maquiladoras (or "maquilas"). The vast majority of maquilas are affiliates of American-owned companies that assemble goods for export, including transportation equipment, electrical and electronic products, toys and sporting goods, textiles and furniture. The maquiladoras are primarily situated in the Mexico-United States border region.2

The disparity in income and living conditions between the poor South and the developing North has drawn people away from the South to resettle and seek jobs in the border region. In a 1994 report on child labor in Mexico, children's rights expert Kenneth Klothen states:

. . . (T)hese factors have the effect of bringing large numbers of young people and families to areas where they do not have the benefit of traditional extended family and other communal structures to provide assistance to the family economy, and where educational services, day care and other social benefits are lacking. These effects tend to promote the entry of children into the work force.3

As a result of these economic pressures many children work long hours under hazardous conditions.4

The maquiladora work force is primarily composed of young female production workers.5 There is only limited evidence of the existence of child labor in maquilas currently producing goods for export although there have been past reports of child labor. The investigators for a 1993 Defense for Children International report interviewed many maquila workers aged thirteen to fifteen, as well as adult workers, who reported that it was relatively easy for underage workers to gain employment in a maquila. At least 75 percent of those interviewed knew of underage children working in the factories with the only exception being those factories located in and around Matamoros.6 Klothen reports that although the trend is to hire fewer underage workers, "serious problems remain with the employment of early teens (often under the legal minimum of fourteen)."7

The underage maquila workers are generally girls just below the minimum age. Investigators found that many start working at age 12 or 13. The children are able to either lie about their age or provide false birth certificates or other documents in order to obtain their positions.8 Young workers may be subject to harsh conditions in maquilas including overtime, night shifts, and exposure to hazardous materials.9

Although most of the investigation of children working in maquilas is from 1991 and 1993, it is probable that children under the age of 14 continue to be employed in the maquilas. More thorough documentation is needed to determine the extent of child labor and the specific products that are being manufactured with the use of child labor in the maquiladoras.


Child labor is found in workshops producing a variety of handicraft and folk artesanry items.10 A 1992 Mexican Government report stated that 10.8% of economically active 12 to 15 year olds work in palm leaf and wood craft shops.11 Some of these items may be exported to the United States.

Other Export Industries

Klothen asserts that child labor apparently does not exist in processing plants for agricultural products, but that children are employed on farms under contract to the export-oriented processing firms. Klothen discovered in an interview with the plant manager of a large American canning firm that their contracts bind their growers to comply with applicable Mexican laws, but this firm makes no attempt to police labor conditions as they see this as the role of the labor inspectorate. The manager acknowledged that the growers who supplied the plant used child labor in the fields.12

Several journalists and human rights workers have reported the existence of child labor in the shoe and garment industries. One journalist found children as young as ten working eight hour days in small factories in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. These children were exposed to hazardous conditions including constant contact with the toxic glue used to attach the soles of shoes.13 A Defense for Children International investigation of child labor in the manufacture of athletic and casual shoes in Leon, Guanajuato State concluded that this industry is "positively rife with the extreme exploitation of child labor."14 The report noted:

Children as young as pre-teens worked with materials labelled hazardous without benefit of protective clothing or adequate ventilation . . . These sweatshops were not then exporting much to the United States, although at least one had filled a contract for athletic shoes for a Texas school district. However, they were anxious to take advantage of their low cost production to enter the U.S. market, and were eagerly awaiting passage of the NAFTA agreement to assess opportunities for doing so.15

Child labor has also been found in garment factories concentrated in the state of Aguas Calientes that produce almost exclusively for the domestic market.16 A 1988 Mexican Government report found that 54,000 children between the ages of 12 and 15 worked in textile manufacturing.17

III. Laws of Mexico

A. National Child Labor Laws

The Mexican Constitution establishes 14 as the basic minimum age for work.18 The Federal Labor Law (LFT), which is incorporated into the Constitution, includes special provisions concerning the work of children between the ages of 14 and 16. Among these various provisions, minors in this age group are prevented from work that is "dangerous or unhealthy," underground or underwater, itinerant, or which "may affect their morals or good behavior."19 In addition, they may not work after 10:00 p.m. in an industrial plant, work for more than six hours per day, or work for more than three hours without a one hour break.20 In order to work, children under eighteen are required to have permission from a legal guardian or parent, have regular medical examinations, and their employers must post a list of dangerous tasks not to be performed by minors.21

There have been numerous complaints of lax enforcement of Mexico's labor laws. Enforcement of federal labor laws falls under the jurisdiction of state governments, except for certain specified industries including textiles, chemicals, automobiles, metals, and others, whose enforcement falls under the jurisdiction of federal authorities. This system has been criticized by some for its inefficiency.22 The weakness of the enforcement system is also apparent in the small number of cases concerning violations of child labor laws that are appealed to the courts. This can be explained in part by the fact that the fines are small and considered by business owners as a cost of doing business.23

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Directorate of Inspection of the Labor Ministry will take over the enforcement of labor laws in the border region. With the help of a proposed large appropriation from the Mexican Treasury Department, the hiring of more inspectors and the operation of more labor officers in border cities is likely.24 Higher fines are also proposed.

B. Education Laws

Education is compulsory in Mexico for both primary and secondary school and parents are legally liable for ensuring their children's attendance.25 Schooling is available to almost all who seek it, but approximately 45 percent of those enrolling in primary school drop out before completion of the mandatory basic elementary and intermediate education.26

C. International Conventions

Mexico is party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.27 The Government of Mexico has not ratified ILO Convention No. 138 Concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment or ILO Convention No. 59 Concerning the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment in Industry.28

IV. Programs and Efforts To Address Child Labor

The Mexican Government recognizes the need to address the problem of child labor and has taken steps in that direction. In 1993, the International Labor Organization worked with the Mexican Government's Social Development Secretariat to develop a national action program for the eradication of child labor, with the financial assistance of UNICEF. The preliminary project resulting from this collaboration has not yet been approved.29 Other initiatives have been taken by the government to address the needs of children working in the informal sector. These are concerned with informing children and their parents of the rewards of education and providing them with various educational opportunities. The effect of these programs can not yet be determined.30

1 Estimates of the number of children under 15 years of age working vary considerably from 8 million, or 25.8%, as given by UNICEF, to 11 million, or 34.4%, as given by the Mexican Statistics Institute (INEGI). Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993 (U.S Department of State, February, 1994) 502 [hereinafter Country Reports].

2 Kenneth L. Klothen, Child Labor in the Export Manufacturing Sectors of Central America and Mexico (May 1994) 18 [on file] [hereinafter Klothen].

3 Id. at 18.

4 Out of the Equation: Children and North American Economic Integration (Defense for Children International (DCI), 1993) 4 [hereinafter DCI Report].

5 Foreign Labor Trends: Worker Rights in Export Processing Zones(1989-1990) (U.S. Department of Labor, August 1990) 16.

6 DCI Report at 6.

7 Klothen at 21.

8 DCI Report at 5. See also John M. McClintock, "Free-trade pact raises concerns about exploitation of Mexico's child workers," Baltimore Sun, December 15, 1991.

9 The 1993 DCI study found that some young workers were using lead solder in their work. Cited in Klothen at 22.

10 American Embassy-Mexico City unclassified telegram no. 30300, December 23, 1993.

11 Child Labor in Mexico (First Version, Mexican Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare, January, 1992) 39 [hereinafter Child Labor in Mexico]; A U.S. Embassy official in Mexico stated, in a telephone interview with a Department of Labor official (July 9, 1994), that he had observed children painting ceramic animals in Oaxaca.

12 Klothen at 24.

13 Telephone interview with Matthew Moffett, reporter for The Wall Street Journal, by Department of Labor official (April 7, 1994) [hereinafter Interview with Moffett].

14 International Child Labor Hearing, U.S. Department of Labor (April 12, 1994) (Statement of Defense for Children International-USA).

15 Id. at 4.

16 Interview with Moffett.

17 Child Labor in Mexico at 40.

18 The Federal Labor Law (Ley Federal de Trabajo), Article 23 (a) [hereinafter LFT].

19 LFT, Article 175.

20 LFT, Article 177.

21 LFT, Articles 23, 174, and 423.

22 Klothen at 20.

23 Klothen at 23. Taken from interview with Lic. Alfonso Niebla y Castro, Director General of Inspection, Mexican Ministry of Labor.

24 Id. at 22.

25 Country Reports at 502.

26 Regional Tri-partisan Latin American Seminar on the Abolition of Child Labor and Protection of Working Children (ILO and Ministry of Labor and Human Resources of Ecuador, 1991) 17.

27 Country Reports at 1403.

28 List of Ratifications by Convention and by Country (as at 31 December 1992, (Geneva: International Labor Organization, 1993).

29 Id. at 502. A Department of Labor telephone interview on July 9, 1994 with the American Embassy Labor Counselor in Mexico City confirmed that the national action program has not yet been approved and will most likely not be considered again until after the Presidential elections in August 1994.

30 Klothen at 23.