How young is too young? Bolivia debates child labor law

Bolivian law sets the minimum working age at 14, but congress is discussing changes. Would banning child labor help kids out of poverty or will it push them into more dangerous work?

David Mercado/Reuters
A boy working as a shoe shiner is seen in La Paz, January 8, 2014. Bolivia's congress is revising legislation that broadly affects children, including the legal working age.

The cemetery in the Bolivian city of Potosi is a labyrinth, but Juan Carlos Espinoza never loses his way. Climbing a long metal ladder, the 13-year-old works here after school, polishing tombstones set into high walls for roughly $0.70 a job.

Working children are often seen as voiceless laborers, but in Bolivia, thousands of young people aged 6 to 17 have joined together to demand jobs free of abuse, and legal recognition of their right to work.

Currently, Bolivia's congress is revising legislation that broadly affects children, including the legal working age. Some young people, like Juan Carlos, who is a member of the Bolivian Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (UNATSBO), want to see age limits lowered or eliminated. At the heart of the debate lies the question of whether banning child labor in low-income countries offers children a way out of poverty, or if it further harms poor youth by pushing them into even more dangerous and hidden work.

"This affects me," Juan Carlos says of the debate over minimum age. His mother died years ago, and his father gives him little support. "This is how I pay for my studies – for everything."

Illegal and omnipresent

Child labor is highly visible in Bolivia. The great majority of these young people work independently or with their families, not in factories or large-scale enterprises. They shine shoes on busy city streets, work deep underground in small-scale mines, and herd sheep and llamas in the countryside. 

Bolivian law currently sets the minimum working age at 14, as does the International Labor Organization's (ILO) minimum age convention, to which Bolivia is party. But the law is rarely enforced: in a nation of just 10 million people, 800,000 working children are either under the minimum age, or are 14 to 17 years old and doing jobs deemed harmful to their health.

Today, several programs designed to pull families out of poverty are underway in Bolivia, including a conditional cash transfer program that rewards children and their families for keeping kids in school. Extreme poverty is decreasing, but many of Bolivia's very poor – a population of roughly one million people who live on less than $1.25 a day – are without any sort of safety net.

While many children say they work to help their impoverished families survive, Lars Johansen, of the ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, says they really risk becoming trapped in the same low-income cycle as their parents.

"The earlier children start to work the higher the chance that they will drop out of education and perpetuate poverty," Mr. Johansen says. "If you are going to combat poverty we are of the firm opinion that you must combat child labor.... If you put the minimum age at 14 that is not the reality today, but at least it is a goal to struggle for."

Juan Carlos says banning child labor makes it harder for kids to seek redress for physical and verbal abuse, and making sure that they get paid. That, he says, is why his union, UNATSBO, proposes no minimum age for independent workers, like shoeshiners, and a minimum age of 12 for children who work for a "boss," such as in a commercial bakery.

Children, unite!

President Evo Morales, who as a child herded llamas, recently expressed his sympathy for the movement. “According to my experience, the work of girls, boys, and adolescents should not be eliminated, but they should also not be forced or exploited into work; some work because of necessity," President Morales told state newspaper, Cambio.

Organizations like UNATSBO provide a place for working children to do their homework, learn about their rights, and talk through their problems at home and at work. In recent months, organized child workers have met lawmakers, held national union meetings, and on Dec. 23 even spoke with the president. But as they become more visible in the debate over minimum age, some question whether these children's activism is being manipulated by adults that have their own agenda and may prefer lax rules. 

Jenny Miranda, a national leader of UNATSBO, sells shoes in local markets. She's now 17; since she was six has done everything from selling candy to gold mining in the mountains northeast of the city. 

"People think that we are being manipulated, but that's not the case," Jenny says. "We have meetings, we talk with the kids, and they participate and define what they want.

But Ulises Carguani, also 17 years old, disagrees. He started accompanying his mother to work as a child, and now works in an Internet café in the city of El Alto.

"A child does not want to be working, a child wants to be playing and with friends," says Ulises, who heads a small organization of teens called Hands United for Change, which believes the minimum working age shouldn’t be lowered.

He says the government must prevent children from working out of economic necessity by generating more jobs for their parents that offer decent salaries and benefits.

'Thousands of people'

The proposed legislation – called the Boys, Girls, and Adolescents' Code – would require the creation of a national census of child laborers, says Congressman Javier Zavaleta, who heads the parliamentary network on children and adolescents. The census would then be followed by a series of social welfare programs aimed at the neediest children and their families.

"After the census, the state program will ... respond with a whole battery of measures to make sure that a boy or a girl does not have to work out of necessity," Mr. Zavaleta says. "The state will cover what they don't have, from housing to shoes, so they can go to school."

Mr. Johansen of the ILO says programs offering broad support to very poor families have successfully decreased child labor in places like Mexico and Brazil, and have the potential to do the same in Bolivia.

But Jenny, the young union leader, doubts working children will see that level of help from the government anytime soon.

"We are not just one or 10 families – we are thousands of people,” Jenny says.

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