*Please note: this post is not without spoilers*
One of the most obvious connections to the real world that I saw in The House of the Scorpion was when Matt was at the different orphanages and all the boys had to work making sandals, measuring pills, raising plankton etc. and child labor. Free the Children was founded by Craig Keilburger in 1995 when he was twelve years old because of a news story that he read. There was a boy named Iqbal who spoke out wanting to get rights for children. He had been sold as a slave when he was four years old and then he spent six years chained and working at a carpet loom. Because Iqbal spoke up he was killed when he was only twelve.
We like to think of our world as a perfect place and many of us like to pretend that issues like child labor don't exist anymore. The fact is child labor is still a problem that needs to be solved. The novel made it seem that well the work the boy's did was hard they still lived fairly nice lives. They all had enough to eat, they were told stories and only whipped very occasionally. In real life it wouldn't be that nice. I assume there would be food shortages and there would be very hard work with minimal to no pay in dangerous conditions.