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OTTAWA -- The Mexican government is advertising that children as young as 12 are an important part of the country's labor force, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., says.

The Mexican Investment Board, a joint government-business effort to attract foreign investors, is distributing this information on an automatic fax service to which any American firm can have access in seconds, he said.

On one page of the service, Mexico's unemployment rate is described as covering persons 12 years old and up.

Mexico's constitution prohibits labor by children under 14, but a stroll through any Mexican town or city shows that this rule is not well-enforced, especially for the nation's huge underground economy.

Mexican officials privately acknowledge that child labor is a significant problem in Mexico, as it is in most developing economies, but official confirmation is rare.

Hollings discussed child labor in Mexico in a television appearance last week on the C-Span cable network.

Officials for Mexico, Canada and the United States are meeting here to negotiate new agreements on enforcing labor and environmental laws as part of the proposed North American Free-Trade Agreement. Although Mexico's lack of environmental enforcement has received most of the attention so far, U.S. labor unions are pressing for the use of trade sanctions when Mexico fails to enforce its labor laws.

U.S. chief negotiator Rufus Yerxa and his counterparts, John Weekes of Canada and Herminio Blanco of Mexico, were exchanging views on draft texts submitted by each country.

A U.S. plan for authorizing a proposed commission on the environment to levy trade sanctions reportedly was being sharply challenged by Canadian and Mexican officials.

The investment board's data on Mexico's unemployment rate, easily obtained in Washington through the fax service, states that the information "includes population of 12 years and over that didn't have a job a week before the survey and have been looking."

In fact, a Mexican official said the data probably undercounts the number of 12- and 13-year-olds in the labor force. Government statistics, available for 1991, cover only the official, salaried labor force of 10 million people, leaving out the many millions who work part-time, toil in unregistered factories, or scratch out a living as street vendors.

In a nation where, by some estimates, more than half of the population of 85 million is under 25, many of these overlooked workers are children.

A Mexican government spokesman said the investment board's employment statistics, collected by a government agency, use internationally recognized definitions of who should be counted in the labor force. He said Mexico strictly prohibits work by children under 14 and closely restricts the hours and working conditions for 14- and 15-year-olds.

Using the 10-million person work force tallied in 1991, he said only 0.2 percent, or about 20,000, were counted as 14 or 15 years old. There was no information about younger workers.

The Mexican Investment Board is a non-profit partnership between the Mexican government and the country's major banks.

Hollings, one of the harshest congressional critics of NAFTA, already has complained about a campaign by the Mexican state of Yucatan that tried to lure American manufacturers with promises of cheap, docile workers and a high standard of living for plant managers.

The "Yes You Can, Yucatan" campaign in American magazines -- at one time underwritten by an arm of Mexico's central government -- was discontinued after protests by U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor.

All the viewers on the C-Span call-in segment of the show spoke out against the trade pact and many identified themselves as supporters of former independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, the most visible NAFTA opponent in the United States. Hollings took credit on the broadcast for convincing Perot last May to oppose the trade agreement.

After twice testifying against NAFTA in Congress, the Texas billionaire is planning a half-hour television broadcast May 30 to expound on his views about the agreement.

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