Aug. 21, 2003
By Deacon Tom Picciano/ SUN contributing writer
Woman travels to Mexico to witness child labor conditions
When Alex Kastning of Cincinnatus visited Mexico in 2001, she started crying after seeing people living in a garbage dump. The dumps are often the home for people who toil in the factories just over the border from the United States. On her return to Mexico this year, Kastning again saw the dump cities and their residents, but with a new perspective, as a mother of a year-old child.
“Being a mother myself, I wanted to take each child in my arms and tell them it would be okay, even though I knew it would not be. They would still be starving the next day and the next. The urge to hold those children and protect them from the cruel life they were thrown into was overwhelming,” she said. Kastning’s trip was made possible through Cortland-Chenango Rural Services, an agency run by Sisters Kathleen Heffron, CSJ and Maureen Burns, CSJ. Alex reported on her experience in a five page paper to Rural Services after she returned from Mexico.
The children who Kastning met were amazed by her clothing. What she wore was second hand, because she didn’t want to get her clothes dirty on the trip. A seven-year-old girl’s comments struck her. “She told me she had never seen anything so beautiful in her life as my clothes. That day I had chosen to wear jeans with beads and a pink tank top with a flower on it. My jeans had stains on the knees and my shirt was torn at the bottom,” Kastning added. She figured that the price of her clothes could have fed the children for a few days. “The standard of living in the United States is based so heavily on what you have and how much of it you have that people do not stop to think of those who have nothing and are just trying to survive. Those pants that were $5.99 from Salvation Army would have equaled about 60 pesos,” she said. “Instead I spent that money on preserving my ‘good’ clothes when that little girl could have been that much further from dying of hunger.”
That same little girl received a red crayon from Kastning and divided it four ways so each of her siblings would have a piece too. “There was a look in the children’s eyes as we got ready to leave that should have not existed. It was a look of complete loneliness,” Kastning said. The average Mexican works 14-hours a day in the factories, making about $3 per day. Kastning compares it to factories in the Industrial Revolution of the United States. She said there’s little intervention for the workers, as the government takes the side of the businesses. An organization called Futuro, meaning future, was created to help the workers in the American-owned factories. They’re trying to get better conditions for workers who have to deal with toxic chemicals with little protective equipment. Poor work conditions create high stress levels. Kastning notes that the workers face ailments including cancer as well as injury from accidents using hazardous machinery. “These conditions present in the factories are illegal in the United States. So why are the American companies allowed to treat the Mexican people so badly?” Kastning asked.
Kastning added that the factory workers can’t pay the cost of education for children above sixth grade. That in turn, means more youth under 15 in child labor, a figure she said is estimated to be more than 8 million. “All of these American companies work out of Mexico at an eighth or less of what they would have in the United States,” she observed. “The saddest aspect of the inhuman practices of the big businesses that happen take place because I support them.” Boycotts cause a concern for Kastning now that she has spoken with young factory workers. “Kids will point out: ’you’re wearing the shoes I made,’” she said. “We can’t boycott it or they’re out of a job.”
Kastning brought 12 boxes of clothing and other items to Mexico. She traveled with the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition on the visits to the factory workers. They’re still seeking money, clothes, school supplies, medicine and everyday needs to send to the workers and their families. If you’re interested in helping, you can call Kastning at 607-863-4270 (e-mail Akastnin@cincynet.cnyric.org) or Maureen Casey of the New York State Labor and Religion Coalition at 518-213-6000 ext. 6294.