I’ve recently been lucky enough to attend several cultural events in Mexico City organised as part of the “Festival de México”. Music, film, theatre, all offered free by the city government as part of the huge array of cultural programmes available to those of us living in this fascinating city.
My enjoyment of these events was tempered by a reality that I had not fully realised despite being in the city for over a year now. Day and night, the city abounds with informal traders, selling everything from chewing gum, sweets, cigarettes and snacks. These traders are of all ages, but what is particularly striking is the number of children involved, some as young as 5 or 6, often accompanied by their parents, but not always. I was particularly struck by one girl, about 9 years old, selling sweets in the street and in restaurants, still dressed in her school uniform at 10 at night. I bought some sweets from her and asked what grade she was in. “Fourth grade”, she answered, mentioning a school and neighbourhood I hadn’t heard of, certainly far from the city centre. “School starts at eight am”. I asked her if it was tiring to get home so late, she nodded in affirmation.
It is estimated that one in eight children aged between five and seventeen in Mexico are involved in child labour. Of these the majority are in rural areas. An Inter-Institutional Committee for the Eradication of Child Labour is being set up across the country, as is a national plan to this effect. Mexico ratified in 2000 ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, whose definition includes: “work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.” Does being a nine year old girl out at night constitute harm to health, safety or morals?
I did not have the opportunity to ask her about her parents, about how she felt to contribute to the family income, although those were the questions I was asking myself. In a city of huge contrasts between rich and poor, the minimum wage is only US$5 a day – to show just how little this is, average rent for a one bedroom apartment outside the city centre is US$335. Child labour is clearly a question of extreme poverty and extreme inequality. Latest figures for Mexico showed an increase in absolute poverty levels in 2012. Without making a real impression in eradicating poverty, and especially extreme poverty, children will continue to be at harm as they sell sweets come nightfall.