Veracruz, Mexico – “Cutting sugar cane is like running a marathon every day.”
That’s what the leader of a 35-person crew in the state of Veracruz, Mexico told me as the sound of fire cackled in the air and a cloud of ash rained down on us. The tinny monotony of machetes slicing into sugar cane stalks was a kind of musical accompaniment to one of the hardest day’s work I’ve seen.
Cutting sugar cane is not just like “running a marathon”. It’s like running while inhaling dangerous smoke from burning the sugar cane, with the risk of cutting yourself with a machete, being bitten by snakes and scorpions, and without enough water and protein to keep you hydrated and give you energy.
Seeing Mexican teenage boys, many still years before their growth spurts, working in such difficult conditions is a stark reminder that for so many in the world, economic necessity puts children in the workforce.
Albino was just 12 when he became a migrant worker. He says severe bullying drove him to drop out of school. “I didn’t want to get out of bed to go to school,” he told me. “My mum would tell me to go.”
The day the older boys shoved him and broke his wrist was his last day of school. “I wasn’t going to let them bully me like that any more. I said to myself, ‘OK, they can win this one.’ And I didn’t go back.”
The 16-year-old has spent the past four years following the seasons of fruits and vegetables – sugar cane, mangos, cucumbers, tomatoes, cherries. He admits that, initially, his scrawny body struggled to keep up with the adults in the fields. But now he proudly says that he provides money to help to support his family and can buy his own things.
Fernando’s father says he wanted so much to finish school himself, but he had to work to help to support his family.
He’d always wanted Fernando to have the education he couldn’t have. But when Pablo realised his son wasn’t committed to his studies, he wanted to ensure that Fernando wouldn’t be lured into a gang. He wanted the boy to develop a work ethic and learn to support himself. So the two travel from one harvest to the next, toiling side by side.
“He loves working,” says Pablo. “I make sure he spends his money wisely. He uses the money to help our family and he even lends money to his friends. I want him to be a responsible man.”
One of the ways Mexico has tried to keep children in class and not at work is through the Prospera, or Prosper, programme.
Launched in 1997, it offers what’s called in NGO lingo “conditional cash transfers”. The Mexican government gave $500m last year to 6.1 million families, according to data provided by Prospera.
The payments are an incentive for parents to keep their children in school and, in exchange, the families have to meet certain requirements and attend workshops such as sex education and family planning.
Reynalda Barragan Pastrana says the Prospera programme altered the course of her three daughters’ lives.
Nine years ago, the single mum says, she and her daughters were living in a 5m x 5m room, and were struggling to meet basic needs. Her eldest daughter was thinking about dropping out of school to spend her days making food to sell in the market.
But with the $2,000 a year she received from the government, her eldest daughter is now a high school graduate, recently promoted to store manager, and her other two daughters are well on their way to graduating from high school as well.
Even Reynalda herself was able to take advantage of the programme to finish her secondary education.
“I had to work since I was little in the fields. Life was not easy for me and I always wanted things to be better for them [my daughters]. Thanks to the [Prospera] programme, I have been able to make things better for them.”
Prospera’s success has been modest. According to a 2013 World Bank/UNICEF report, the organisation reduced child labour among 12 to 15 year-olds by 5.5 percent.
Of course, it’s only one way to help reduce child labour.
Prospera founder Alexandro Baquedano told us child labour can never be fully eradicated, and Prospera certainly cannot do it alone.
“I’m incentivising families to send their kids to school. But if the teacher doesn’t seem to care, then there’s no link. We all need to work on the same page, all the agencies. If we all worked together then we’d have better results,” Baquedano said.
Albino says he believes it’s too late to return to school, even though he has regrets. He has a girlfriend in high school and his face dropped when asked if he sometimes wishes he were in school with her.
“Of course I wish I was with her. I ask her not to talk to me about it,” Albino says.
Asked what he would tell his own son if he planned to drop out of school, Albino says he would describe his own suffering and explain how hard life would be.
“You do regret it later when you look for different work and they ask for your qualifications. You think to yourself, ‘Why didn’t I go to school?'”