Child labour in Mexican agriculture subject to pressures from USMCA and Mexican employers

Some 589.300 minors were working in Mexico’s agricultural sector in 2019 and this number is likely to have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. The USMCA trade agreement is putting up pressure to eliminate child labour involved in the production of agricultural products imported by the US, while a recent labour law reform in Mexico has reduced the minimum age to work in the agricultural sector from 18 to 16. 

Article translated and adapted from El Economista.

No one cares
Beeld: ©Unsplash

The USMCA and child labour in Mexico

The USMCA trade agreement between Mexico, the United States and Canada, which went into entry in 2020 and replaced the previous NAFTA, prohibits the imports of products produced with forced or child labour. Of all economic sectors, the US Government is paying special attention to Mexico’s agricultural sector: Even though other export sectors, such as the automotive sector, are economically more important, child labour is most prevalent in the agricultural sector and verification of labour standards is lower than in other sectors, says Oscar Castillo, Director of the Campos de Esperanza (Fields of Hope) programme, an initiative of international NGO World Vision. According to Mexico’s latest Child Labour Survey from 2019, Mexico’s agricultural sector employs some 589.300 minors, 87% of whom are boys.

The same survey indicates that in Mexico more than 3 million children - or 10% of all children - between the ages of 5 and 17 are in conditions of child labour in unauthorized types of work, while more than half of them do so without receiving any salary. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC), Mexico is the country in Latin America and the Caribbean with the second-highest prevalence of child labour, after Brazil.


The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk of child labour: According to estimates by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), each percentage point increase in poverty leads to a 0,7% increase in child labour increases. As Mexico’s poverty rate rose from 41,5% to 50,6% in 2020, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), an additional 210.000 children may have joined Mexico’s workforce.

Labour Law Reform

However, the COVID-19 pandemic also fueled a renewed interest in the countryside as a space for development and growth in Mexico, according to Ricardo Monreal, Senator for Mexico’s ruling leftist party Morena. At the Forum "Job Opportunities for Youth in the Agricultural Sector", organized by Mexico’s National Agricultural Council (CNA) earlier this year to promote a reform of the Federal Labour Law that would lower the minimum age to work in the agricultural sector from 18 to 16, Monreal defended the reform arguing that the agricultural workforce is aging and that it is important that young people see the agricultural sector as a sector of opportunities.

Organized Crime vs Child Labour

The reform that will lower the minimum working age in the agricultural sector has been promoted since 2017 by CNA, and was approved by the Mexican Senate in February 2022. “There are activities that this group of adolescents can carry out without putting their health at risk”, according to CNA’s President Juan Cortina at the Forum: If they are not allowed to work on the field, "many will turn towards illegal activities as a source of income in order to get ahead in life," he argued, referring to (drug-related) organized crime. However, not everyone agrees with this argument: “I find the relationship between agriculture and crime interesting, but there is no scientific evidence to show that this is true,” says Fernanda Martínez, researcher at the Leibniz Institute for Economic Research (RWI), in an interview. On the contrary, the law that banned labour for minors (including those aged 16 and 17), which was put in place since 2015, caused more than 25.000 adolescents to stop working and almost 50.000 to return to school, according to a RWI study.

National Standard

Now that the reform has been approved, youth aged 16 and 17 will only be prohibited to work on the field if the work involves “the use of chemicals, handling of machinery, heavy vehicles, and other risks determined by the competent authority." Mexico’s Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare has until October 2022 to develop the official national standard that determines which activities youth aged 16 and 17 can carry out and under what conditions. Omar Estefan, General Director of Social Welfare at this Ministry already indicated that the official standard may included more restrictions than just the use of chemicals, machinery and heavy vehicles: “in agricultural work people are dealing with extreme temperatures, ergonomic risks (for spending a lot of time crouching, for example), or need to carry loads that are heavier than allowed by the regulatory framework". A bulletin published by his Ministry points out that the reform "does not open the possibility of hiring minors in the agricultural sector."

The challenge of recognizing child labour

When World Vision started with its Campos de Esperanza (Fields of Hope) programme in 2017, there was resistance from the agricultural companies to recognize the existence of child labour as well as confusion about the definition, says Oscar Castillo. This is confirmed by Alejandro Martínez, Director at the Center for the Rights of Children and Companies, a Mexico-based NGO: "Before, it was very difficult to find companies that would talk about these issues and that would say: I have child labour problems”. This has changed due to the USMCA trade agreement, but also thanks to public scrutiny, the voice of consumers, the media and social networks, according to Martínez.

Gaps in law enforcement

Martínez also sees that the emphasis of labour inspectors is on exporting companies while other farms are being ignored, even though these smaller companies may pose a greater risk of child labour. He also sees a need to widen the scope of the inspections from on-farm production to subsequent steps of the value chain, such as post-harvest and sales.

Even for adults, there are multiple types of labour rights violations in the agriculture sector, according to Martínez. For minors, however, it is worse, as they cannot have a contract, working days exceed the 6 hours allowed, and they are not always paid directly and many times not even paid at all. “The issue of child labour cuts across (phenomena such as) labour trafficking, exploitation, abuse, family separation, and migration,” he points out. “The USMCA trade agreement is increasing the pressure to change this, and talks about forced labour, “because the conditions in which child labour occurs often lead to forced labour". Mexico has one of the most advanced labour laws, but the problem is the inspection and in the technical assistance and guidance of companies, according to Martínez.

The gaps in Mexico’s law enforcement are echoed in the article in El Economista through an interview with Elías Santiago, who works for an agricultural company in Sinaloa, in the North of Mexico. Santiago grows Asian vegetables for the Chinese community in the US. "Everything must be perfect, the best of our harvest is exported” he says, "and sometimes the labor inspectors visit us. That is why they don't let us have our children in the fields, but we cannot tell them what is happening to us. (…) The inspectors do come, but our bosses tell us what we have to answer, that everything is fine, that we have a clean place to eat, even though is a table in the field filled with bird poop, where we do not all fit”, explains Santiago.