The Miami Herald
March 11, 2001

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.''

                                      'LITTLE ENFORCEMENT'

                                      In fact, there is such a law, but,
                                      like many labor laws in rural areas of Latin America, it is
                                      rarely enforced.

                                      ``At the farms, the owners pretend they don't see it,'' said
                                      Carlos Emilio López, the children's advocate from a
                                      government agency.

                                      "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.