Bolivia should take the High Road…in a school bus


Bolivia’s congress is currently debating a proposed law that would reduce the minimum working age to 12 or even 10 years old. This has generated strong reactions from trade unions and human rights groups, and rightly so.

TUCA, our ITUC Regional Organisation for the Americas, has written to President Evo Morales criticizing the proposed law, and reminding him of Bolivia’s obligation to fulfil ILO Conventions 138 and 182 which set minimum working age standards and require governments to ensure that children younger than 15 (or 14 in exceptional cases) are in school, not at work.

The Global March Against Child Labour, Anti-Slavery International and Human Rights Watch have made a similar appeal to the President and taken the issue up with Bolivia’s Senate.

“I am aware of certain regressive forces in the civil society and the governments which are still struggling to reverse the efforts in ending the menace of child labour,” wrote Kailash Satyarhi, Chairperson of Global March Against Child Labour, in a statement.

“Such elements have always used the argument of cultural sensitivity, traditions, poverty, family necessities, etc… against globally accepted principles, standards, legislations and commitments. This is exactly what is happening in Bolivia and this is non-negotiable.

“Global March and its partners not only condemn therefore the proposed move to reduce the age of child labour to 12, but strongly demand the President and the people of Bolivia to stop this unjustified and unacceptable action from taking place.”

Of course, every country should ensure that its laws and practice, such as labour inspection, meet the standards set through the ILO, including the fundamental right of all children to be protected from exploitation.

But the pathway Bolivia is contemplating strikes at the very heart of an economy and labour market regulated by the rule of law.

When the state says it’s OK for young children to work, the kids themselves will pay the price throughout their lives – not only from the burden of physical labour from such a young age, but also the cost to their future of missing out on any chance of a good education.

All the evidence shows that the more hours children spend at work, even if they attend school, the worse their educational outcomes are.

Bolivia has a big problem of child labour. Large numbers of children work in agriculture and in the desperation of the informal economy.

But simply setting the status quo in stone can only make matters worse.

Throughout history, governments have faced this problem and many still do today. And those which have taken the twin steps of regulating working age and investing in education know that in their country, economic development and social progress have been built on those very foundation stones.

No country has ever managed to develop successfully and sustainably by leaving its children at work and out of school, a fact recognized across Latin America today where governments are putting laws and programmes in place to ensure school attendance and decent jobs for adults, on which families can build a future.

For sure, the international community bears a share of the responsibility. The global economy is in worse shape for working families than it has been for decades, and the policies of key governments and the international financial institutions have much to answer for.

Recognising that, there is still no way that Bolivia will be able to build a good future by removing vital protections from its children and undermining - instead of investing in - its own education system.

When the international trade union movement built Convention 182 with governments and employers at the ILO in the late 1990’s, we worked closely to combine our expertise on the world of work and social development with the knowledge and experiences of NGOs, which have decades of experience of helping children out of work and into school.

In many cases, it is a difficult and even dangerous task, pitting progressive activists against slave-owners and people-traders. Yet not only is it possible, it is happening around the world in every region every day.

Bolivia should take inspiration from these struggles for justice and development, and turn down the proposed law on lowering the age of child labour, which sells the future of its people short and undermines progress in other places.