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Migrant Workers in Mexico Left to Hoe Their Own Row

Emilio Godoy

ATLAUTLA, Mexico, Oct 21 2010 (IPS) - Every year since 1975, Castro Solano has left his home in the town of Tlapa de Comonfort, in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, to work in other parts of the country as a seasonal farm labourer.

“They treat us badly. We’re not allowed to take a break to eat during working hours and the boss is always on our backs to load the trucks faster,” Solano, who usually takes a job picking tomatoes in the municipality of Atlautla, Mexico state, in the centre of the country, told IPS.

On his frequent journeys, Solano, a 50-year-old member of the Tlapanec, or Me’phaa, indigenous group, endures the precarious conditions of day labourers who leave Tlapa de Comonfort, 460 kilometres south of Mexico City, to pick tomatoes, chili peppers and cucumbers.

Between September 2009 and January 2010, 8,213 Tlapanec indigenous people left Guerrero to sell their labour. In this year’s harvest season which began in September, the total number of migrant workers from the state could be as high as 10,000, according to the Tlachinollan Mountain Human Rights Centre, a non-governmental organisation that monitors migration from the mountainous part of Guerrero.

Their main destinations are the northern states of Sinaloa, Sonora, and Baja California Sur, and the central state of Morelos, adjacent to the town of Atlautla, population 24,110, located 140 kilometres southeast of the Mexican capital.

Guerrero state is in the lead for domestic migration, and ranks fifth for emigration abroad, mainly to the United States, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI).

In the last decade, 380,000 labourers have migrated to northern states, Ministry of Social Development figures indicate.

“They (migrant workers) are entirely unprotected and defenceless. The government does not inspect or monitor working conditions in the fields,” Margarita Nemecio of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre told IPS.

At Guadalupe Hidalgo, a village in the municipality of Atlautla, day labourers get up at 5:00 AM to offer their services to local farmers in the main square, known as “the people market.”

Wages for a working day lasting from 7:00 AM to 1:00 PM are 10 dollars. The national minimum daily wage is four dollars.

Day labourers are often recruited by middlemen who organise transport to the fields and make contact with farm bosses. In other cases the migrant workers organise their own transport, chartering a bus or truck to take them to where crops need harvesting.

In Guadalupe Hidalgo, the workers sleep in tiny rented rooms and share toilets. Water is scarce. Solano pays four dollars a week for his humble lodgings.

Seasonal labourers “are highly vulnerable to human rights abuses,” Jorge Bustamante, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, told IPS.

This is because of “their minimal participation as a group in electoral processes, and their lack of representation on legislative bodies that are supposed to represent agricultural labourers,” he said.

One of the worst facets of day labouring is the employment of children aged six to 14, although it is forbidden by the constitution.

Out of some four million people who work as migrant labourers picking fruit and vegetables, over one million are under 14, according to the Child Rights Network in Mexico (REDIM), an umbrella group of 63 NGOs.

A 2006 report, “Diagnóstico sobre la condición social de las niñas y niños migrantes internos, hijos de jornaleros agrícolas” (Social Conditions among Children of Migrant Farm Workers in Mexico), concludes that the Mexican government must develop comprehensive public policies to address the situation of migrant day labourers and especially that of their children.

The report is by the Ministry of Social Development and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

“There are no records. We have been reporting cases of child labour to the authorities for three years, but oversight is weak,” Nemecio complained. Since 2007, at least eight children have died, from accidents or illness, on the farms where they or their parents worked.

One recent case is that of Flora Jacinta, a four-year-old girl who died in July from drinking polluted water in a migrants’ camp in Sonora.

Silvia Toribio, six months old, was run over by a truck Oct. 8 on a tomato farm near Guadalupe Hidalgo. The daughter of indigenous labourers Pascual Toribio and Zoila Cano was sleeping in a small crate at the time. The truck driver fled and is still at large.

The Ministry of Social Development’s Programme for Agricultural Day Labourers provides financial support for infrastructure, school grants, food aid, health care and other extra benefits. This year the programme’s budget of 23 million dollars has been used to help 600,000 people.

Since 2007 the Ministry has implemented a pilot project, titled “Monarca, contigo en tu camino” (roughly, On the Road With the Monarch Butterfly), named for the annual migration of the famous butterflies. The goal of the project is to combat child labour on farms, and it also provides scholarships and health and food benefits for children working in the fields.

The labour reform bill sent to Congress in March by the conservative government of President Felipe Calderón makes it a crime to hire children under 14 from outside the family, and empowers the Federal Labour Inspectorate to order an immediate stop to children’s work.

According to Bustamante, the lack of effective policies to ban child labour brings no political costs “because of the low level of public awareness about the problem.”

The day labourers from Guerrero will head home to celebrate the holidays of All Saints and the Day of the Dead, Nov. 1 and 2. Then they will pack up their things and hit the road again for the two-day journey to pick crops in Sinaloa.

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