Poor Latin American youths working for coins
BY FRANCES ROBLES
MANAGUA -- The traffic light flashes red, so Martín
Fernández pounces into action.
He has a dirty squeegee in his left hand, and the equally
filthy palm of his right hand is extended. As quickly as he
can, he washes Managua's dusty car windshields,
anticipating a coin or two.
If a driver shuns him -- they often do -- he plasters his pretty
green eyes against a passenger window, banking that the
pity inspired by his soiled clothes and scant 13 years will
earn him a buck.
``On a bad day, I make 15 córdobas,'' Martín said, lamenting
the lack of earnings this last crush of cars got him. ``A good
day -- 30.''
Martín and children just like him make about $1.50 a day
each in Nicaragua, often more than their parents. They are
part of an unofficial sector of the economy, one that puts
about 300,000 children under 14 to work at traffic lights,
coffee plantations or markets, according to Carlos Emilio
López, an official of a government human rights agency.
The children sell chewing gum, wash windows and pick
coffee -- but they rarely go to school.
In Latin America, there are 15 million more just like Martín,
according to figures provided by Casa Alianza, the Latin
American arm of Covenant House, the New York-based
children's rights organization. In Latin America, about 20
percent of all children under 14 work, according to the
In Managua, Martín is one of the estimated 310 children who
work the city's 32 main intersections, breathing in exhaust
fumes and getting hit by cars and drivers' fists. They are the
Nicaraguan government's latest target in a
less-than-successful salvo to get kids out of the workforce
and into the classroom.
But experts warn that when staggering unemployment rates
of 50 percent and higher keep parents from finding jobs, it's
tough to ask their children not to work.
``Look, I'm going to explain something to you,'' Martín said.
``My mother has five kids. She doesn't have the money to be
giving to all of us. She can't be supporting me.''
He noticed the traffic light blinking yellow, and dashed back
to work and beg.
That day, the intersection was flush with social workers in
white T-shirts and blue caps. They were from the
government's Family Services Ministry, there to survey
children about whether they attend class, how much they
make, and their parents' whereabouts.
Part of the ``Traffic Light Plan,'' they are Step 1 in the
government's effort to get the children off the street.
The social workers were greeted warmly and told by the
children that the average day yields 20 córdobas -- $1.53 --
money that most said they would gladly give up if someone
would feed them and pay school fees. Some were literate;
most quit school after second grade.
A few said their mothers worked, but others were the
breadwinners for their brood. They pose a puzzle for
Nicaragua and many other Latin American countries: If the
government can't create jobs for the parents, what are they
supposed to do with their kids?
``The press is saying we're going to institutionalize them, or
take them away or just do cosmetic changes. It's not so,''
said Rosa Argentina López, minister of family services. ``An
illiterate parent thinks it's more important to get 100 pesos
from their child than to send that child to school. They don't
understand the damage they are doing.''
López said the government plans to teach skills like sewing
and tortilla-making so parents can earn money from
``unofficial activities.'' A small revolving loan fund will help
people start their own businesses, she said. Although the
government is working with foreign textile corporations to
give parents of street children preference on employment
waiting lists, there is no guarantee of a salaried job.
In the meantime, López thinks people should quit reaching
into their pockets.
``I ask people not to give them a peso,'' she said. ``That's
guaranteeing the presence of that child at that intersection. If
that child comes home and says, `Mama, cars went by and
I got nothing,' then maybe that woman will go to work and
send her kids to school.''
Martín Fernández explains that it's not that simple. He says
his mother does work, but does not earn enough selling
tortillas to support seven children.
'I LIKE TO WORK'
``If they give me for shoes and pants and books, I'll go to
school,'' said Chivo Fernández, 12, who dropped out of
school in third grade so he could wash windows all day with
his 10-year-old brother, José. ``I like to work because I can
buy what I need. What's hard about it is that sometimes
nobody gives me any money!''
Other children work alongside their parents, particularly in
the coffee fields, where adults are paid per sack of coffee
beans they pick. The more helping hands, the more food in
the family's fridge.
A recent University of Central America study found about
2,500 children under 14 working in the coffee fields in
Jinotega and Matagalpa. Most of the 1,444 children
interviewed worked six days a week, but only half went to
school last year. Of those who went, 17 percent did not
finish the school year, and only 31 percent were advanced to
the next grade.
Two-thirds could not read.
``The parents think this is the best way for the family to
survive,'' said Berta Rosa Guerra, coordinator of the National
Program for the Eradication of Child Labor. ``It's such a
contradiction: How can a country with so much
unemployment have so many children at work?''
The study showed that although coffee growers insisted the
children helped out with only small tasks, the kids reported
spraying pesticides along with carrying and picking beans.
A few nongovernment associations are working in the fields
this year, starting small schools to help children catch up
with their studies.
``We're going to help these kids. They need an education,''
said Félix González, director of the Jinotega Coffee Growers
Association. ``But what can we do to stop it? There is no
law against it.''
In fact, there is such a law, but,
like many labor laws in rural areas of Latin America, it is
``At the farms, the owners pretend they don't see it,'' said
Carlos Emilio López, the children's advocate from a
"Children work harder, get paid less, don't form labor unions
or protest low wages.''
López says he fears that the government's new ``traffic light
plan'' will flop because it lacks the funds to treat systemic
He says he worries that violent confrontations will result from
social workers' family visits -- which often take place with the
police at their side.