Child Labor and Costa Rica

Here I go again… It doesn’t take much to get me started. This time it was a video produced by Teletica Channel 7. For those who are less than fluent in Spanish, I’ll provide a few translated highlights:

According to the latest data found in 2002, 115 thousand child workers were reported, 55 thousand are younger than 15 years old.

And this from Sandra Piszk – Minister of Labor

“What we can determine is that most of this work involves abuse at home or from their employers. That is why it is important to determine what is going on. In addition to that, these children are dropping out of school. We have seen a problem related to poverty and a minimum salary. It is evident that these people are being paid less than any other worker because it is a clandestine act. It is necessary to take action to prevent it and hopefully eradicate it.”

These ministers and bureaucrats have a great talent for stating a few obvious points and saying nothing of any substance. The minister says it’s important to determine what’s going on. How hard is it to see? You need another study, another commission made up of overpaid relatives to put together another report to state the obvious and make recommendations that do essentially nothing to change the situation?

If the government wanted to save some serious money, they could pay me a few thousand dollars and I would put together a paper that would come to the conclusions they want to hear. But I am getting off track. The subject is child labor.

It’s typical to look for somebody to blame here, and even more natural for the government to find the culprits outside their own inner circle. It’s the parents. It’s the employers. Well… they aren’t blameless, no question. But let’s look at it from the perspective of the family whose child is working. The essential question is, why?

First of all, let’s look at who we are talking about. Do imagine that Laura Chinchilla’s son ever considered selling chicklets to help the family put rice and beans on the table? Of course not. But if Mrs. President could spare a few minutes from her schedule of appointing study panels and photo opportunities I invite her to take a walk with me through the slums of her capital city and its suburbs. She can listen while I ask a few meaningful questions of the families there.

She could hear why most poor families never have anyone in the family with more than a sixth grade education. It’s not because they all drop out to work. It’s not because the mother is too lazy to work herself (the father is usually long gone, but even when he’s there, the family is lucky to make $400 a month to support its 6 or more members.)

I’ve covered this before, but it costs upwards of $100 per child each year of schooling. It’s not uncommon for a poor family to have 4 children or more. Simple math (I learned in school I didn’t have to pay for) says that minimum costs of keeping the kids in school equals an entire month’s wages for an already poor family. Is it really any wonder so few poor kids get beyond grade school?

I’ve talked to some of the kids and mothers (haven’t met a father yet) about the schooling, and the classrooms are overcrowded and under-equipped as well as running split shifts to save on (low) teacher salaries. I have met otherwise bright teenagers who can’t add 26 and 28 together. My Spanish is mediocre at best, but even I am appalled by the near illiteracy the school system produces.

President Chinchilla has stated that she wants Costa Rica to be the first Central American nation to be a ‘first world’ country. Well, it is already, if you look at it a certain way. She and her friends and social set are living a wonderful life of luxury and privilege and pay lip service to helping the less fortunate while making sure their share of the pie is orders of magnitude greater than their less fortunate countrymen.

If any of these public officials want to convince me they actually care, they will start by advocating increasing their own taxes to fund a decent public education system here, for starters, and make it TRULY free, not just in name only. And while they are at it, maybe make health care truly universal, and fund the public health system adequately. Madame President doesn’t have to wait 7 months for diagnostic tests while she is in danger of dying of a heart attack. Bless her, she can afford to go to a private hospital, and even then I’m sure her job provides total coverage, just like the United States Congress.

Child labor exists because, simply put, the economy in this country for those not in Ms. Chinchilla’s set is miserable. She can set up all the competitiveness councils and get all the advice she can tolerate from first world economists, but at the end of her term the majority of people in her country will be worse off than it was when she took office. Prove me wrong if you can, Madame President.

I can’t blame the rich for enjoying their good fortune. I just wish they would be honest and admit they really couldn’t care less what happens in the slums as long as they don’t have to deal with the rabble. Okay, I will now sit back and prepare for the responses pro and con.

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  1. sunnyboy says:

    Fully agree with the views… however, Mrs President cannot change things overnight though she can surely make a begining. And the ex President, the nobel laureate, what about him ? Seems to have spent more time with the Hondurans than trying to fix these issues at home….

  2. I am a regular tourist of Costa Rica (once a month) it amase's me that right in the heart of the city 10-15 year old children are passed out laying face down on the sidewalk (overdosed from crack) as thousands of locals and tourist step over them and go about their business, nothing is done it never ends the begging for coins the begging for food it's all right in the open, if the gov't is so concerned about being a first world country, maybe they should get from behind their desk's and get out and take a walk some morning down avenue central – see what the tourist see – Too much effort is being put into harassing Gringos — raiding MPs- and closing casinos, when the real problem is the poor youth's of the country are being eaten up and spit out by the local drug dealer that are allowed to operate freely the problem is right in the open, if the casual tourist can identify it why is the gov't so blind.

  3. teri in Hermosa says:

    I commend you on your frank honesty and observations and writing about what REALLY is going on.
    One big issue for the school kids is no uniform, no school. I would like them to establish a mobile school clothes bank where school clothes are donated to those that surely cannot afford them. I've volunteered for the school and was totally frustrated with the system. Thirty kids, all ages – one room and one teacher. The kitchen didn't have a refrig. or even food for the kids. Sad, sad. I wish more tourist would tap into to the area they are visiting and just BRING SOMETHING for the kids, like crayons and the like. ANYTHING would be greatly appreciated. A soccer ball would make a school happy!

  4. In fairness to the Costa Rica government and the administration of former President Arias and President Chinchilla, I believe it should be noted that the Arias administration developed a program to provide grants to low income families to assist them to be able to stay in school and reduce school dropouts. From following both Chinchilla's campaign as well as some of her post election and initial statements as President I believe she has stated a commitment to both continue the "drop-out prevention" program grants to low income families and to also attempt to increase the number covered in the program. I am not knowledgeable about the specifics of the program or the number of children covered. I do agree with your editorial comment about the need to increase taxes on the wealthy in Costa Rica; there was one effort to do so related to "luxury home taxes" which evidently was not implemented very well- perhaps this can be incrementally improved.

    • Easy,

      These programs are well intentioned but are way under funded. A family I know who have virtually no income have waited 3 years without help to buy school supplies. I am not rushing to judge Mrs. Chinchilla as a failure, but all I have heard so far are the same platitudes and calls for 'study.' Saying you care about the drop out rate is one thing, actually funding programs that do anything about it is something I have yet to see. I fear that it will be more of the same, lots of speeches and commissions and studies and the end result will be marginal. I HOPE I am wrong, I really do.

  5. Jim Lynch says:

    Sadly Dan, I'm afraid that your assessment that things will be worse at the end of this administration is right on the mark. Their priority was established their first week in office with the "double our salaries" initiative. The absolute gall of that continues to mystify me.

  6. Sorry to be the spoiler in all this blame the government tirade, but I think it needs pointing out that the average Tico needs to take some responsibility here and stop having so many damn kids! I know, it's tradition, it's the Catholic way, but I would hope these kinds of Middle-Age beliefs would be overcome with a little help from the top. Costa Rica can simply not reconcile their eco image against families without sufficient income who continue to have 4, 5, 6, etc. kids. Instead of the government stepping up to this problem they spend millions making sure everyone and their gazillion kids have a small pre-fab shack to live in. Closing the door after the horse is long gone.

  7. … and before someone accuses me of not liking children, let me point out that we donate plenty of supplies to the kids in our neighborhood and provide free weekly English lessons for them as well, let them use our Internet connection for their homework (and music downloads, lol), etc.

    • Casey,

      Are you aware that the official governmental sex education policy is 'abstinence only?' Madame President is a self-proclaimed devout Catholic, which means she opposes birth control in any means, except not having sex. Since Ms. Chinchilla only had one child, I presume she abstained most of her life. I agree 100% too many babies for too little jobs is a big problem and it isn't going to go away without some sincere effort encouraging birth control, not trying to prevent it. Funding a decent public school system with decent sex education programs would help a lot, as would making birth control FREE to all. Won't happen though, with Santa Laura.