MEXICO: Family Work or Human Trafficking? Child Labor Law Sparks Controversy

(05/19/2021) SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — Before the arrests and the worldwide headlines, Enereida Gómez Sánchez and her three siblings’ families used to shuffle out of the home they shared early each morning. In the center of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, in Chiapas state, they hawked bracelets, wooden dolls, earrings and amber jewelry. They toiled from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

Some of their 23 children – who ranged from 3 months to 16 years old – worked too.

“We work and they come with us, and they learn to work,” says Gómez, 35. “But we don’t make them work.”

Gómez and her brothers and sister had moved two decades earlier to San Cristóbal de Las Casas from the village of Chigtón, also in Chiapas state. Like many indigenous families, they hoped to escape Chigtón’s poverty. Instead, in their new city, they barely survived.

Last July, their lives took another bitter turn when Gómez, her mother, father, siblings and their spouses were accused of “human trafficking by forced labor exploitation.”

The case drew global attention to the controversial issue of “family work” in Mexico and specifically in Chiapas, the country’s southernmost state. Prosecutors say they were just following the law, but activists argue that poor families are trapped by a one-size-fits-all policy that doesn’t reflect reality and only adds to the travails of Mexico’s most vulnerable.Family work is “a subsistence strategy in the face of the government’s abandonment to guarantee basic rights such as health, food, education and decent housing,” says Mónica Salazar, director of the social organization Dignifying Work, which distributes information about forced labor, human trafficking and fair work.

International conventions generally classify child labor into three categories: exploitative work, such as slavery, prostitution and armed conflict; labor by children under the minimum age, as specified by each country; and work that endangers a child.

In Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest states, forced labor is the second most common form of trafficking, says Miriam Guadalupe Benítez Cruz, the prosecuting attorney against trafficking in Chiapas until December 2020.

Between 2018 and 2020, Mexico saw 1,436 human trafficking cases nationwide, including 42 in Chiapas.

“It’s never been our intention to use these laws to hurt the residents of Chiapas,” Benítez Cruz says.

She explains that parents often put their children to work because that’s what they grew up doing. The problem is when parents neglect issues such as the child’s health, education and play, she says. That’s when authorities investigate.

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