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— It's illegal for a child under 16 to work in Mexico. Doubtless, the law was passed to prevent the exploitation of children and to keep kids in school. But sometimes the law denies children from impoverished homes a chance to help their families. "When I was 10," recalls 13-year-old Angel Delgado Hernandes, who lives with his mother and three sisters in the Colonia Postal section of Tijuana, "I needed to make money to help support my family. So I went out to find work."

In his search for work, Delgado walked into a Ley supermarket within sight of Tijuana International Airport in Otay. "They told me they couldn't hire me because I was too young," he recalls. "But they also told me about the program."

The program he speaks of is an agreement between large Mexican supermarket chains -- Ley, Calimax, Commercial Mexicana, Gigante, and others -- and the Mexican child-protection agency known by its Spanish acronym, DIF -- pronounced "deef" -- that stands for Desarallo Integral de la Familia, or integral development of the family, Jorge Bedoya, a DIF official in Tijuana explains. "It's a national program, because in Mexico, there are a lot of kids working to help out their families. They made a contract between the government and these big supermarket chains so that these children would not be left unprotected. The deal was that social services, DIF, would give classes to these children to teach the kids values and instruct them on their rights as workers. And the part of the markets would be to limit the times that these kids would be there, so that they would have time to go to school. And each market must have a person who is specifically in charge of these children, who makes sure that they have their rights respected and that they don't work overtime and that they are fulfilling their other duties, like their schools and their homes."

Their duty at the stores is to bag groceries for the customers coming through the checkout line. But, so as not to violate the child-labor laws, the empacadores, as the children are known, are not employees and not paid by the supermarkets. They work strictly for tips. "The government doesn't refer to it as work," Bedoya explains, "because that is illegal. It is illegal for a child to work in Mexico. So it is kind of a gray area, because if these kids do not work, then their family probably will not eat. So we call it an activity.

"In the supermarket," he continues, "there is no chain of command with the children, so they are basically autonomous. They do have a person, employed by the store, looking after them. But the manager of the supermarket can't tell the kids, 'Okay, go sweep that aisle,' because these kids are in a certain way apart from the supermarket. They are not part of the work structure of the supermarket."

At the Otay Ley, on a Friday morning around 9:30, a dozen kids, evenly split by gender, averaging 12 years of age, stand at the checkstands. The boys wear navy blue slacks, white shirts, and solid blue ties. The girls wear navy blue pleated skirts and white blouses. Both boys and girls wear blue berets. Ley has 22 checkstands, but only 6 are open at this early hour. So two empacadores man each stand, taking turns packing the groceries. The customers, after paying their grocery bills, hand a few pesos to the children. "The clients have responded well to the program," says David Zarate, who supervises the empacadores program for all 12 Ley stores in Ensenada, Tijuana, and Mexicali. "They understand the reason for having them here, and they treat the kids well. Also, we put up signs that you see as you walk into the store that explain why the kids in the blue berets are here and that they work solely for your tips."

One would think a pack of 10- to 14-year-olds away from their parents' supervision could be disastrous from a store-management perspective. But Zarate says he hasn't seen many problems with the children in his stores. "We've had a few," he says, "but nothing major. And we don't fire the kids if there's a problem. We suspend them for an hour."

Delgado admits to getting distracted by a friend while working from time to time. "And sometimes the customers get mad if I'm a little distracted...or if they don't like the way I packed a bag. But most of the time they treat me well."

According to Zarate, Ley doesn't receive any tax breaks or incentives from the government for taking part in the program. "We were told about the program in 1994, and we voluntarily decided to be part of it," he says. "We feel very good about the program and about providing a way to help these kids."

Zarate concedes that the store benefits financially because "We would have to hire people to do the work the children are doing." But that benefit is offset by the fact that Ley pays an employee in each store to be devoted solely to coordinating the empacadores and pays Zarate himself to coordinate the whole program.

Six mornings a week, Delgado takes a five-peso taxi ride from his home a couple of miles away to start work on time at 8:00 a.m. He works until noon, then returns home for lunch before heading to school. The four-hour shift is the maximum allowed by DIF. How much money he makes in one shift, he says, "depends a lot on the day. I average about 40 pesos [about $4.50] a day. But Saturdays and Sundays are better than weekdays. On a good Saturday or Sunday I can make 150 pesos [$16.50]. And on the 15th and 30th of the month I know it's going to be a good day because everybody has just gotten paid." With a broad grin, he boasts that, after three years bagging groceries, he can spot the good tippers as they walk up to the register. He says he gives "the major part" of the money he makes to his mother and keeps the rest to spend on school supplies.

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