Coronavirus Compounds Dangers for Child Workers

Children continue to work in the streets of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, even as tourists vanish and the pandemic bears down. This exposes them to a potentially deadly virus. But if they stay home, their families struggle more.

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Coronavirus Compounds Dangers for Child Workers

Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

Sisters Sandy and Alejandra Guzmán Vázquez, 9 and 11, sell bracelets and felt hearts to tourists in the city center of San Cristóbal de Las Casas to help their family. They know little about the coronavirus, which makes them particularly vulnerable.

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SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — The nearly empty streets of San Cristóbal de Las Casas pose two threats to Sandy and Alejandra Guzmán Vázquez.

Sandy is 9 and Alejandra, 11. Shy and inseparable, the sisters face the dangers of working downtown alone every day, selling embroidered felt hearts and woven bracelets their mother makes.

Then they must protect their health. Though schools and businesses are shut and the Mexican government has enacted coronavirus restrictions, the girls must work to help their family. On school vacations, they used to earn up to 500 Mexican pesos ($23) a day. Now they go home each night with little or no money.

“People aren’t coming because of this coronavirus,” Sandy says, “and we’re barely selling anything.”

Hundreds of thousands of child workers in Mexico find themselves in a similar dilemma: By working, they expose themselves to the potentially deadly virus. But if they stay at home, their struggling families are likely to suffer more, as the pandemic cripples Mexico’s economy.

Before the coronavirus crisis, about 197,000 children and teenagers already were toiling in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, and one of its poorest. Most of them work to help bolster their family’s income.

Child labor in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, located in Chiapas, drew headlines worldwide in late July, after police found a house crowded with 23 children who allegedly had been forced to sell handicrafts in the city center.

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Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

At a stall at the Santo Domingo Market, Amairani Guadalupe Penagos Santiago and her grandmother, Eli, use antibacterial gel and wash their hands often.

A report from the International Labour Organization says the coronavirus pandemic will likely worsen the root causes of child labor – poverty and lack of economic opportunity – pushing more young people worldwide into work.

“The economic and social crisis will hit children particularly hard,” the report says.

More than half of Mexico’s children live in poverty, according to the government’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy. In Chiapas, that figure climbs to 80% – the highest among Mexico’s 31 states.

And the coronavirus may deepen their poverty. A survey by the United Nations Children’s Fund, known as UNICEF, found that between February and May this year, Mexican households with children and teenagers saw their income plunge by 73.5%.

This is unsettling news for San Cristóbal de Las Casas, a popular tourist spot known for colorful colonial architecture, rich indigenous culture, verdant vistas, and lively textile and art markets.

In normal times, the city’s estimated 3,400 child workers spend their days among tourists. The visitors have now vanished, but the children remain.

Many are like Sandy and Alejandra, who have little or no information about the coronavirus. Child workers must guard their safety on isolated streets, but without knowledge of the virus, they are even more vulnerable.

Amairani Guadalupe Penagos Santiago, 12, waits with her grandmother for customers to buy their churros, potato chips and plantains at the once-crowded Santo Domingo Market.

“There are no sales,” Amairani says. “Sometimes we come, sometimes we don’t, because there’s almost no one out.”

She adds, “We wash our hands, and we have antibacterial gel. We wash them anyway because we serve food.”

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Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

Amairani Guadalupe Penagos Santiago, 12, spends her days with her grandmother selling fried snacks at the Santo Domingo Market. Her grandmother, Eli, says they must work at the market despite the coronavirus crisis because this is the family’s only source of income.

Various groups and agencies have united to protect child laborers during the pandemic.

They include Melel Xojobal, a children’s rights organization; the National System for the Protection of Girls, Boys and Adolescents (SIPINNA), a child protection agency; and the Municipal Human Rights Defender of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

The nongovernmental organization Cántaro Azul, which focuses on water, hygiene and sanitation issues, has partnered with the city to create hand-washing stations.

Officials collect data from children who use the stations. Armed with that information, SIPINNA works with the city to take food to families, so they don’t have to leave their homes as often.

City health teams also hand out protective masks in markets and other places of informal commerce.

Liliana Bellato, municipal human rights defender of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, says children have some information about the coronavirus, but they need more.

“It’s not enough to hand out flyers,” Bellato says.

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As of Oct. 16, San Cristóbal de Las Casas had 391 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, including at least five among children ages 5 to 19.

A local official says government representatives have met with child workers, provided food and tried to keep them from both catching and sharing COVID-19.

“It is a pity that with this pandemic they have to be out, because they are vulnerable,” says Nuria Marissa Ramos Cruz, municipal attorney for the Protection of Children, Adolescents and the Family, part of the state’s System for Integral Family Development.

Amairani lives with her mother and her grandmother, Eli. Selling fried snacks is the family’s lone source of income.

She usually sells her products for 20 pesos ($.90). “But now I even give it away for 10 ($.45),” Eli says.

Before the pandemic, Amairani went to school, then came to the Santo Domingo Market with her grandmother. She often worked from 3:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Now she is at her grandmother’s side all day. When someone orders churros, she asks if they would like them with chocolate or milk. And if a customer wants potato chips, she offers them sauce.

“The quarantine thing affects me at school,” Amairani says. “We’ve already missed a lot of classes and work.”

She adds, “I say we don’t need to be scared. We need to be at home.”

Marissa Revilla is a Global Press Journal reporter based in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. Marissa specializes in reporting on child rights and conflict in indigenous communities throughout Chiapas.

Translation Note

Sarah DeVries, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.

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