An interview with Dora Isabel Ochoa Aguilar
Dora Isabel Ochoa Aguilar is the Human Resources Manager at Agrícola BelHer1, a company that grows tomatoes in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. In this interview, she talks to Early Childhood Matters about her company’s efforts over the past two decades to improve living conditions for the children of the seasonal migrant workers it employs.
Tell us about the seasonal migrant workers Agrícola BelHer employs. How many are there, where do they come from, and for how long do they stay?
Last season we employed over a thousand seasonal migrants, with hundreds of children. Some are young couples with one or two children, other families are big enough to occupy two adjacent living units in our hostel complexes, which have almost 500 individual homes. We have a policy of preferring to employ workers with families, as we believe it generates more stability, both for the company and for the family, than employing single people. We treat families well, and they come back year after year to work for us.
Our migrant workers come from various parts of Mexico, making journeys of 800–1900 km. And they may stay for up to 10 months, although it used not to be that way. When I started working for BelHer in 1990, typically workers came in October and left in April. Now that technology has enabled us to expand the growing season, workers may arrive in August and not leave until the following June. And this is a good thing for the education of their children, because in most cases it enables them to complete the school year.
So the children of the seasonal migrant workers get an education?
We are 100% committed to the children of our migrant workers having an education: from preschool to elementary, through to middle, high and/or vocational. We work with a local NGO to monitor young children and make sure those at risk of developmental delays are referred in a timely fashion – and at the company’s expense – to private sector specialists such as neurologists, orthopaedists or ophthalmologists. Sometimes new families come to work for us with young teenagers who have never had any education, and we make sure they get adult education at an appropriate level.
I have to say that, in the beginning, it was a struggle. Parents were used to taking their children to the fields, and when we first hired a teacher, parents found it difficult to value that. However, we persevered. In 1999, we opened a kindergarten in our hostel complex, hiring teachers to work there when they were off-shift in the afternoons. In 2003, we started enrolling children in regular primary schools.
So the children of our seasonal migrants are learning Spanish and English as well as their mother tongues, learning to use computers and the internet, and having workshops in dance and drama and music, instead of staying in the fields. In fact, we now have our first two graduates among children of our migrant workers – both architects – with others currently studying subjects such as social work, nursing and business administration.
We know it is often hard for children of seasonal migrants to access public services such as education when they are living temporarily away from their home. Is this a problem for you?
It is a problem because schools need to make projections about how many children they will have to serve, and when migrant populations are unpredictable that is difficult. Not all people arrive at the same time and leave at the same time. For example, yesterday two buses with agricultural workers and their children arrived. I spoke to the schools, and they are full – they can’t take one more child. What I can do?
I’m going to find space in our complex and ask the authorities to send a teacher, but this is not what I want to happen. Most companies prefer to have classes on site, because it means they don’t have to pay for transport to take the children to school. But I think it is important that migrant workers’ children socialise with other children beyond their own micro-universe, children from other cultures, so that we can build mutual respect. I believe it is important for the child to have experiences outside the hostel complex where they live. As the children of our migrant workers come from different parts of Mexico, when they go to local schools it leads to a cultural exchange that is beneficial for all parties.
We have had other problems, such as migrant children not getting textbooks when policies or the people in charge changed, or report cards issued in one school not being recognised in another school. But it has always been possible for agricultural companies to work with the schools and the authorities to sort these problems out.
In general, how is your relationship with public services and institutions?
It is very good, in part because the company’s CEO is committed to social responsibility and very supportive of the community in terms of sport, cultural activities and so on. So when we constructed a new hostel complex 3 years ago, for example, we were able to work with the municipality on providing infrastructure for drinking water.
We take advantage of the various forms of support from state authorities that are available to agricultural companies, sometimes in conjunction with NGOs. For example, monthly food packages for each child attending school, and hot meals for children in kindergartens – we have to deliver a standard monitoring tool with data on nutritional and attendance levels. The doctors who run the health clinic in the hostel complex, in a space we make available, are paid by the relevant authorities, not privately by us.
We also send migrant women to be trained by the relevant authorities as caregivers for our nurseries – madres cuidadoras. Our policy is that caregivers have to be from children’s own communities, because you can’t run an early stimulation programme in Spanish if the young children do not understand Spanish.
You started working with migrant agricultural workers in 1990. How have the challenges they face changed in that time?
I have been working for BelHer since 1990, but actually it was in 1988 that I first started studying the living conditions of seasonal farm workers, for my degree in social work. Then, children were with their parents in the field. Children from 6 years old were not in school – they were working, mainly, in transplanting and cutting vegetables.
There were challenges with regard to discrimination. We’ve had to work hard to achieve inclusion and respect between locals and migrant groups. We promote sports and other activities that help migrant workers to maintain their customs and cultural traditions.
Living conditions used to be much worse, with shelters made of galvanised sheets. And there were health challenges. In children under 5 there was a problem with malnutrition, with some quite severe cases of respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases. We work hard to prevent this by providing health services, monitoring children’s weight and height, supplying food supplements and instructing mothers on nutrition. We make sure children have access to milk and fresh fruit.
I’ve found that it is a myth that parents put their children to work because they don’t want their children to go to school.
Alcoholism has been a problem, among both men and women. Alcohol and drugs can become a hidden problem because our hostel complexes are private property, not public places where the police can patrol, and we do not believe in employing private guards to watch people – we believe they themselves should take responsibility. We organise campaigns and dialogues on alcohol and drugs, and we have observed over the years that the problem is being mitigated by children going to school. I can tell you about families in which the father used to use drugs, but with his children in high school, he has stopped. Children have become an example for adults.
You mentioned child labour: how can child labour be eliminated?
Our experience is that families must be supported. I’ve found that it is a myth that parents put their children to work because they don’t want their children to go to school. It is simply because they want enough money to buy food. If they earn a living wage and if their children have access to education – in a safe place, with transport and food provided – then the parents have no objection to their children going to school. The minimum age at which we hire is 16, and there are restrictions on what tasks a worker can do until the age of 18. Since 2010 we have been officially certified by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security as a company free from child labour. We were that already, even before then – we didn’t have to change any of our practices to get the certificate, we only had to show the requested evidence.
The Bernard van Leer Foundation’s work with young children of migrant workers focuses primarily on improving their living conditions. Tell us how young children live in the hostel complex.
Our company policy is that we will not grow an additional acre if we cannot first ensure that the people needed to work on it will have decent housing and social security, with treated water, electricity, gas for cooking, sanitation, health clinics, education services and playgrounds.
When families return to their villages at the end of the season, or move north to look for more work, we not only support them with transport if they commit to return next year, we also keep their individual living unit locked for them. No one opens it until they return, because it’s their home. This gives a valuable sense of security, especially for children.
We work hard to protect workers and their young children from harmful agricultural chemicals. Every year those of our workers who deal with agrochemicals have a blood test to ensure their exposure levels are not excessive. We make sure our workers know to wear enclosed shoes and clothes that cover their bodies, and that when they finish work, their work clothes go into the washing machines and they go back home with clean clothes.
And last but not least, we also work with an NGO to make sure children get the chance to play sports. They participate in competitions with other teams from agricultural companies, and we lay on trucks to take mums and dads to away games to support them. I feel very proud to tell you that both our boys’ and girls’ football teams are the champions.
More information about Agrícola Belher is available on their website, at: http://www.agricolabelher.com/