For the International Labor Organization (ILO) child labor includes children working before they reach the minimum legal age or carrying out work that should be prohibited, according to Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, in force since 2000, ipsnews.net reported.
The vast majority of these children work in agriculture, but many also work in high-risk sectors such as mining, domestic labor, fireworks manufacturing and fishing.
Three countries in the region, Brazil, Mexico and Paraguay, exemplify child labor, which includes forms of modern-day slavery.
In Paraguay, a country of 7.2 million people, the tradition of ‘criadazgo’ goes back to colonial times and persists despite laws that prohibit child labor, lawyer Cecilia Gadea wrote.
“Very poor families, usually from rural areas, are forced to give their under-age children to relatives or families who are financially better off, who take charge of their upbringing, education and food,” a practice known as ‘criadazgo’, she explained.
“But it is not for free or out of solidarity, but in exchange for the children carrying out domestic work,” said Gadea, who is doing research on the topic for her master’s thesis at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (Flacso).
In Paraguay, the country in South America with the highest poverty rate and one of the 10 most unequal countries in the world, some 47,000 children (2.5 percent of the child population) are in a situation of criadazgo, according to the non-governmental organization Global Infancia. Of these, 81.6 percent are girls.
“People do not want to accept it, but it is one of the worst forms of work. It is not a solidarity-based action as people try to present it; it is a form of child labor and exploitation. It is also a kind of slavery because children are subjected to carrying out forced tasks not appropriate to their age, they are punished, and many may not even be allowed to leave the house,” said Gadea.
According to the researcher, most of the so-called ‘criaditos’ (little servants), ranging in age from five to 15, are “subjected to forced labor, domestic tasks for many hours and without rest; they are mistreated, abused, punished and exploited; they are not allowed to go to school; they live in precarious conditions; they are not fed properly; and they do not receive medical care, among other limitations.”
Only a minority of them “are not abused or exposed to danger, go to school, play, are well cared for, and all things considered, lead a good life,” she said.
The origins of criadazgo lay in the hazardous forced labor to which the Spanish colonizers subjected indigenous women and children, said Gadea.
Paraguay was devastated by two wars, one in the second half of the 19th century and another in the first half of the 20th century, its male population decimated, and was left in the hands of women, children and the elderly, who had to rebuild the country.
“The widespread poverty forced mothers to give their children to families with better incomes, so they could take charge of their upbringing, education and food, while the mothers worked to survive and rebuild a country left in ruins,” she said.
The practice continues, according to Gadea, because of inequality and poverty. Large low-income families “find the only solution is handing over one or more of their children for them to be provided with better living conditions.”
On the other hand, “there are people who need these ‘criados’ to work as domestics, because they are cheap labor, since they only require a little food and a place to sleep,” she said.
Campaigns to combat this tradition that is deeply-rooted in Paraguayan society face resistance from many sectors, including Congress.
It is a “hidden and invisible practice that is hardly talked about. Many defend it because they consider it an act of solidarity, a means of survival for children living in extreme poverty,” she added.
Mexico is another of the Latin American countries with the highest levels of child labor exploitation, in sectors such as agriculture, or maquiladoras —for-export assembly plants.
In Mexico, with a population of 122 million people, there are more than 2.5 million children working — 8.4 percent of the child population. The problem is concentrated in the states of Colima, Guerrero and Puebla, explained Joaquín Cortez, author of the study “Modern Child Slavery: Cases of Child Labor Exploitation in the Maquiladoras.”
Cortez researched in particular the textile maquilas of the central state of Puebla.
Children there “work in extremely precarious conditions, in addition to working more than 48 hours a week, receiving wages of between 29 and 40 dollars per week. To withstand the workloads they often inhale drugs like marijuana or crack,” the researcher from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) said.
In some maquilas “strategies have been used to evade accountability. As in the case of working children who, in the face of labor inspections, are hidden in the bathrooms between the bundles of jeans,” said Cortez.
“They work in truly inhuman, overheated spaces. They are not given even the minimum safety measures, such as facemasks so they do not inhale lint from jeans, or gloves for tearing seams, which hurts their fingers. The repetitive work of cutting fabric with large scissors hurts their hands,” he said.
In short, Cortez noted that “they are more at risk because they work as much as or more than an adult and earn less.”