School or work: the dilemma facing children in Bolivia


It is eight in the morning in the centre of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city. The América market is starting to bustle with activity. Gloria, aged 16, rubs her hands together to warm them up. “When you hire a wheelbarrow, you have to get up early to get the best!” she exclaims with a big smile.

The carretilla will enable her to transport her customers’ shopping, in exchange for a few bolivianos.

Every Saturday, the market attracts the middle classes of the “Quechua capital”, as well as dozens of young workers.

There are 848,000 child and adolescent workers in Bolivia, according to the statistics of the International Labour Organization (ILO). In Cochabamba, the majority are from families who have migrated from the countryside. They live on the outskirts of the city, often in precarious conditions. Gloria lives with her father and three brothers.

“I’m the only one who goes to school in my family. I don’t want to, but my father insists on it,” she admits.

The dance of the wheelbarrows begins. Some of the children are barely 12 years old. Gloria accompanies a woman from one stand to the next. On reaching the car park, she receives seven bolivianos (US$1) and will have earned 70 bolivianos (US$10) by the end of the day.

“There are some customers who don’t pay us enough, so I tell them there are laws and they have to be respected,” she says with aplomb.

This faith in the law may seem surprising at her age. But the young girl is proudly wearing a gilet of the child and adolescent workers’ organisation of Cochabamba, ONATSCO.


A law stirring outrage

In December 2013, ONATSCO took part in a demonstration to push for the reform of the Child and Adolescent Code, which set the minimum legal working age at 14.

The demonstrators faced brutal repression at the hands of the police and went on to be received by the head of state, Evo Morales. A new text was adopted in July 2014 authorising work as of age ten, under certain conditions.

By doing so, Bolivia is in violation of ILO Convention 138 – ratified by the country –, which bans work by minors aged under 14. The move stirred global outrage.

Cristóbal González, who also worked during his childhood, understands the reaction of the international community but also finds it unjust. With a kind-hearted smile, he distributes milk bread rolls to the young workers on the market. The 45-year-old is the coordinator of Audiovisuales Educativos (Educational Audiovisuals – AVE), an association providing support for young people working for themselves on the street.

“It is a structural problem and the international community should focus, rather, on measures to eradicate poverty,” he underlines.

In response to this argument, an Equal Times article from 2014 quoted Jo Becker from 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.”

It is still, however, a source of intense debate in Bolivia.


Legislation that protects children?

The AVE team leaves the city centre and heads for the poor neighbourhoods, to the cemetery. Around a dozen young people are waiting near a tomb for their weekly meeting with the association. Among them is Yocelin, the head of the children’s organisation working at the cemetery.

She goes to school and wants to be a lawyer. “I started working at age seven and I wasn’t protected by the law if anything happened to me. The government didn’t care,” she protests.

In the distance, two teenagers weave their way along the flowery pathways carrying a bottle of water, cleaning cloths and a pan flute made out of plastic pipes. They offer to clean the tombstones or to recite prayers.

“When there is school, I only come at weekends. I earn 70 bolivianos a day and I use that to cover my schooling costs. I also help my mum a bit,” confides one of them, timidly.

Cristóbal says that 97 per cent of the children that his association supports goes to school. “Contrary to what you might think, they work to be able to study. That way they can pay for the public transport to and from school, their school materials, their uniform and their lunch.”

It is a view qualified by Patricia Vargas, Bolivian coordinator of the Swiss aid organisation Terre des Hommes: “The children start working for themselves as of age eight, which is the start of the school cycle. At age 14 they look for a salaried job, and at age 16 they leave school altogether.”

The NGO says its approach to the new law is pragmatic. It offers the possibility, explains Vargas, of introducing local public policies: “Each municipality has to register the child workers and allocate resources so that they go to school and have access to health care. They are also supposed to ensure they are not exploited.”

She admits that the local authorities are not very sensitive to the issue of children, but the new legislation “provides children and teenagers with the opportunity to take part in local political life. And that is already the case in Cochabamba.”

She adds that the authorities should give priority to the worse forms of child labour: “Exploitative networks, such as those in walnut picking, need to be put in the spotlight. These goods are exported and consumed in Europe, so it is a problem that stretches beyond Bolivia’s borders.”


This story has been translated from French.