September 1, 2000

Scandal for president-elect highlights Mexico's child labor


                  SAN CRISTOBAL, Mexico (AP) -- The family of Mexico's president-elect
                  concedes it illegally used children -- workers claim some as young as 11 -- to
                  work on its ranch and at its freezing plant, giving Vicente Fox's administration its
                  first scandal even before he takes office.

                  The children had been working on the ranch for years until a Mexican
                  newspaper reported on the underage workers several weeks ago. The family
                  promptly fired all its underage workers, the workers say, with no severance.

                  The scandal has failed to flare too large, partly because child labor is so common
                  in Mexico and because the children were paid nearly twice the minimum wage, a
                  tidy sum in the poor countryside.

                  Legally, no Mexican under 18 -- 16 under certain strict conditions -- can work.
                  But children often leave school early to take jobs, especially in the countryside.
                  The Fox family businesses are in a rural part of central Guanajuato state.

                  Cristobal Fox, the president-elect's brother, admitted that the family's freezing
                  plant hired underage workers, but said they were never under 15. He conceded
                  that contractors had brought children as young as 13 to work at the ranch.

                  Vicente Fox -- who was elected July 2 as the first president since 1929 not with
                  the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party -- vowed to improve the economy
                  after he takes office December 1 so that children no longer have to work. But he
                  distanced himself from the family business.

                  "This isn't my problem," he said. "This is a problem of others with the name

                  Cristobal Fox said his brother Jose administers the San Cristobal ranch, and that
                  in 1998 Vicente began separating himself from the family businesses.

                  "Vicente has a small property called The Cattle Ranch of San Cristobal, which
                  has 20 cows," Cristobal Fox said. "In the freezing plant, we employ 16-year-olds
                  and up. Some between 15- and 16 years old who finished primary school and
                  had their parents' permission."

                  There are no allegations of child labor on Vicente Fox's ranch, and his family
                  says he is no longer a co-owner of the family ranch and plant.

                  After the newspaper Reforma reported that the San Cristobal ranch, 220 miles
                  (354 kilometers) northwest of Mexico City, employed children, the last two
                  underage workers -- Brenda, 12, and Adriana, 15 -- were told to leave.

                  "They fired us without telling us that there was a problem with the owner
                  because we were underage or that we had to be 18 years old to return to work,"
                  Adriana said. "It isn't fair."

                  Working from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday, Adriana and Brenda -- who
                  wouldn't give their last names for fear of retribution -- earned $7 a day picking
                  potatoes, corn, peas, broccoli and squash for export to the United States, Japan
                  and China.

                  Their situation as working children wasn't unusual, though their pay -- nearly
                  twice the minimum wage -- was high by Mexican rural standards.

                  Workers at the Fox family businesses said 34 children were hired this year to
                  work at the companies, the youngest of them 11 years old. They wouldn't give
                  their names for fear of losing their jobs.

                  "We're talking about a violation of their rights," said Jorge Valencia, president of
                  the Mexican Collective to Support Children. "The best-known and most-accepted
                  proposals go in the direction of ending these situations and advancing toward the
                  eradication of child labor."

                  According to the National Institute of Geographic Statistics, 4.5 million children
                  under 14 -- 12 percent of the child population -- have jobs in Mexico.

                  Nearly 1 million work in the countryside, where the practice has often been
                  accepted as a way for parents to pass agricultural skills on to their children.

                  But some officials say children in Guanajuato are helping solve labor shortages
                  caused by migration to the United States or to factories in cities.

                  Before dawn along the highways near Leon, Guanajuato's largest city, children
                  wait to climb into the back of passing trucks taking workers to the fields.

                  In the darkness, Armando Navarro, 13, waits with a plastic bag filled with a
                  lunch of two tacos and a soft drink. For two years, he has spent his school
                  vacations working at nearby ranches, including San Cristobal, earning $12 a day
                  carrying a 66-pound bag of potatoes.

                  "We are among the poorest here," said his mother, Hilaria, in a house without
                  electricity or water -- and with few prospects for her five children. "I hope that
                  they all at least finish primary school," she said.

                  Armando's salary -- and that of his father and 17-year-old brother -- supports the
                  children, their paternal grandparents and their mother. Each of the two sons
                  earns more than double the $5 a day their father makes clearing garbage from
                  irrigation canals.

                  "There aren't unions. There isn't anything. They don't have protection," said
                  Armando's grandfather, Manuel Navarro. "To survive, we keep arriving at the
                  same solution: work."

                  Brenda and Adriana are at home now, but soon they will find other jobs.

                  "What we had went down the tubes because they took away our work, which
                  was the best we had," Adriana said. "Although it only paid a little, it was OK

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