In Bolivia, with the world’s youngest legal workers

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On 2 July, the Bolivian parliament, following Senate approval and under the aegis of popular and leftist President Evo Morales, passed legislation allowing children to work, under certain conditions, from the age of ten.

This makes Bolivia the country with the lowest legal working age in the world.

The legislation was passed in spite of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 138, signed by Bolivia, which sets the minimum age for admission to employment and work at 14 in developing countries. This international labour standard was written into the Bolivian constitution in 2009, under the rule of the same president, Evo Morales.

Prior to the vote on the proposed legislation, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Sharan Burrow had warned that "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," said Burrow.

President Morales, a former underaged worker himself, gave the following explanation for the Bolivian government’s decision: "Child labour should not be prohibited, but this does not mean it should be exploited. Some work out of necessity. But eliminating work for boys and girls would be like eliminating people’s social conscience."

In Cochabamba, ten-year-old Alfredo has been working since he was five. He sells CDs nine hours a day, five days a week, to earn the equivalent of US$6 a day. "Of course, I’d much rather be playing on a bicycle or with my friends," he tells Equal Times, "But I have to pay for my school materials somehow."

The same applies to his two friends working on the stands next to him, selling fruit juices or helping in restaurants. "I buy clothes and materials for school," 14-year-old Yessica tells Equal Times, "And sometimes I give what I earn to my family."

It is not therefore surprising that the initiative to change the legislation was taken by the Bolivian trade union of child and teenage workers, UNATSBO (Unión de Niños y Adolescentes Trabajadores de Bolivia). The union’s membership is aged between eight and eighteen.

In December 2013, several hundred child workers responded to the union’s call to demonstrate in La Paz, to press the government to overturn the legislation prohibiting children under age fourteen from working.

According to the union, when children’s work is essential to their families’ survival and these children operate outside the law, their working conditions are extremely difficult: exploitation, work in the black economy, no minimum wage.

UNATSBO’s demand was that rather than simply prohibiting child labour, a legal framework should be created to protect them and to clearly distinguish between work and exploitation.

 

Children under economic duress

But beyond these arguments, the root of the problem is the dire economic situation in the country, the poorest country in South America.

According to 2011 estimates, 45 per cent of Bolivia’s population lives below the poverty line.

The percentage of children working in Bolivia is the highest in Latin America.

According to the ILO, at least 800,000 children work; 491,000 are under age 14 and 309,000 are aged between 14 and 17. They often work in hazardous conditions.

The situation in Potosi apparently confirms these assertions. Set at an altitude of 4000 metres, the city’s main resources, silver and zinc, come from the mountain.

The working conditions are appalling. The miners work with picks, crowbars and wheelbarrows in galleries without any kind of reinforcement, several metres below ground, with no lighting other than their headlamps.

Children, whose size means they can make their way into crevices and tunnels too narrow for adults, are employed in violation of the new legislation, which excludes any work that could threaten a child’s development (such as work in mines).

But the miners maintain that with an average wage of just US$90 a month for a sixty-hour week, the whole family needs to work to be able to survive.

Severino, who looks about 10 years old, works at the mine. His father, for fear of inspections by the authorities, claims the boy is 14 and that "he only works if he wants to". When asked if he wants to, he replies: "Of course he does".

"The children go to school until they have just about learned to read and write," explains Juan Carlos Gonzales, a former miner who now works as a guide in Potosi.

"Then they go to work full time in the mine, often as of age 10, sometimes earlier, like their fathers, to learn the trade. By age 15 they are considered full-fledged miners. For these families, it is only natural to carry on the tradition and for a miner’s son to become a miner himself."

But according to Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch: "Child labour may be seen as a short-term solution to economic hardship, but is actually a cause of poverty."

"People who start work as children end up with less education and lower earnings as adults. They are then more likely to send their own children to work."

With only months to go before the presidential election, in October 2014, the government has seemingly bowed to the economic realities in Bolivia at the risk of sacrificing many of its children’s futures.

 

This article was translated from French.

This story has been translated from French.