Advancing Backwards: Bolivia’s Child Labor Law

By: Malavika Krishnan, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

In the midst of a global fight against child labor and poverty, Bolivia stands alone on an empty street. As the world actively seeks to reduce the exploitation of young children in the workforce, La Paz recently amended its child labor law, making it more flexible and allowing children as young as 10 years old to work legally.[1] Indeed, Bolivia’s recent actions reflect its unfortunate reality: approximately 45 percent of its 10 million population lives under the national poverty line.[2] With the recent transformation of the country’s labor laws, the government claims to‘solve’ poverty by 2025; but instead, the move will likely exacerbate the situation and perpetuate the poverty cycle. Although President Evo Morales and his administration may mean well, to succeed in reality, Bolivia must search for other alternatives in order to effectively combat its poverty.

On July 17, 2014, Bolivia’s Vice President Alvaro Garcia signed the bill allowing exceptions to the 14-year-old minimum age rule.[3] Under its provisions, 10 year olds will be able to work if they are self-employed and if they simultaneously attend school.[4] Similarly, the legislation sets 12 as the minimum age that a child is allowed to work under contract, if they possess parental authorization and continue their education.[5] Other provisions include stringent requirements for employers to ensure the physical and mental health of employed children, a harsher punishment for violence against under aged children (up to a 30 year jail sentence for child homicide), voluntary consent from the child and parents, and the mandatory permission from a public ombudsman.[6] The new criteria expands the Code for Children and Adolescents, which previously held no exceptions to the 14-year-old minimum, indicating that children must work out of necessity in light of Bolivia’s dire circumstances.[7] As a result, Bolivia is the only nation in the world that tolerates legal employment at such a young age.[8]

Excluding those working legally in accordance with the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Conventions Nos. 138 (minimum age) and 182 (hazardous work), child labor involves children aged 5 to 17. As it now stands, child labor across the world has steadily declined. From 2008 to 2012,it decreased by 3 percent from 13.6 to 10.6.[9] Latin America and the Caribbean experienced a similar trend, with the statistics reducing from 10 to 8.8 percent over the same period. In 2012, there were 12.5 million child laborers in the region, out of which, a staggering 9.6 million children were subjected to the worst form of child labor, hazardous work.[10] Hazardous work is defined as “any activity or occupation that, by its nature or type, has or leads to adverse effects on the child’s safety, health and moral development.”[11]

A 2008 estimate concludes that there were 850,000 child laborers in Bolivia, and although more recent figures are lacking, roughly 1 million Bolivian children work regularly, accounting for up to 35 percent of the workforce.[12] In Bolivia, young children often toil in sugar cane harvesting and underground mining, an extremely perilous occupation. They slog in textiles and agriculture, and grind away as coca leaf pickers, street vendors, and porters at markets.[13] According to the UNICEF, 50 percent of working children are under the age of 14, while 90 percent of child labor occurs in the informal economy.[14] In Cochabamba, there are an estimated 33,000 child and adolescent workers; 70 percent of whom are girls and young women who are forced onto the streets due to domestic violence at home.[15] Studies have shown that one in three Bolivian children do not attend school, and are thus at the mercy of criminals on the streets.[16] This grim state of affairs, however, is sadly inevitable.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with a GDP per capita of $2,550 USD in 2013, compared to the regional average of $9,314 USD.[17] Its population from adults to teenagers to young children, is in support of the law, interestingly demanding the abolition of all age restrictions.[18] In December 2013, Bolivian adolescents staged a protest, asking the government to amend the child labor law.[19] Supporters of the new legislation along with President Morales argue that child labor is a necessity in many of Bolivia’s poverty-racked areas. Unfortunately, the country’s predicament forces children to work in order to economically support their families who are unable to adequately provide for themselves on their meager income alone. Without child labor, a large portion of Bolivia’s population would find themselves hard-pressed to survive. According to the populace, any ban on child labor is unproductive and unrealistic. Prohibiting its occurrence would achieve little to prevent it, and would instead force children to be illegally employed underground, only worsening the problem.[20] The child laborers themselves want exploitation to end, but not necessarily their work, since their own livelihood depends on it.[21] Furthermore, Bolivia’s Union of Children and Adolescent Workers maintain that there could be benefits to exposing children to the workforce early in life. In a best-case scenario, they could build a ‘social conscience’, and develop important traditional skills (such as harvesting and fishing), responsibility, management, and respect.[22] Yet a tragic situation nonetheless, young children recognize their fate as well as their likely uncertain future. A 12-year-old Bolivian girl selling her mother’s knitted flowers on the street put it plainly: “I see the effort my mother makes… How can I rest when she doesn’t?”[23]

Nevertheless, Bolivia’s steps directly contravene the ILO’s minimum age convention that permits a working age of 15 (14 for developing countries).[24] International bodies have expressed their outrage, and make a valid point. Underage work can lead to devastating consequences for children as they are introduced to slavery, drug trafficking, prostitution, and armed conflict.[25] Although the new law stipulates education requirements, Bolivia’s youth is often exhausted by the day’s numerous tasks.[26] Maintaining a job while studying and completing homework, as well as keeping up regular attendance, makes matters excruciatingly difficult.[27] Children who begin working at early ages are endemically likely to drop out of school, and end up with less education and lower earnings as adults. In the absence of an adequate education, children have little to no hope of escaping dangerous occupations.[28] Subsequently, they send their own children to work, fueling the poverty cycle for generations.[29] This pattern cements them into a lifetime of low-wage work, poor work environments, and instability. Young children risk being trapped in performing repetitive tasks, eroding their development and skills.[30] Moreover, the voluntary consent stipulation is mostly unproductive, since children are plausibly unable to resist family pressures.[31] Reducing the minimum working age and allocating legal restraints may, in actuality, push more families to force their children to work.[32] With Bolivia’s 78 inspectors responsible for overseeing the 850,000 cases of child laborers’ welfare, the proposed stricter laws will most likely go largely unenforced, questioning the legislation’s worthiness.[33] Therefore, child labor may be a short-term solution to poverty, but only intensifies it in the long run.[34] At the end of the day, child labor proves to be an unconvincing way out of poverty and hardship.

Instead, Bolivia should consider alternative approaches to address its poverty and lack of economic development. Following other nations’ examples, it could create more educational opportunities, enforce existing child labor laws, and provide families that subsist on low incomes with cash transfers that would alleviate the demand for child labor.[35] Bolivia has already undertaken this initiative, albeit in a minimal manner. The government stipends pay a $28 USD per-child subsidy to families whose children attend school, but this must be raised in order to become more effective.[36] Additionally, Bolivia should work with local child protection organizations in order to transform the structure of poverty. If adults are able to earn a sufficient salary, there would be little reason to send their children to work.[37] In the short-term, the Bolivian government must secure better working conditions for children and prevent exploitation. They can implement sound labor market policies to ensure that children transition smoothly from school to work once they reach the legal working age.[38] They could also establish strategies that bolster future workers’ skills to an extent that matches those in more advanced economies.[39] To fully confront its dismal socioeconomic troubles, Bolivia must examine and eliminate the root causes of the problem. Unless the state expands and upgrades their education, health, and social protection systems, child labor will continue to degrade society.[40]

Child labor is a complex socioeconomic issue, and its various intertwined aspects must be managed with careful consideration in order for progress to be insured. Bolivia’s recent move exposes its paradoxical reality: children must work out of necessity in order to fund their schooling and food expenses.[41] Despite breaking international convention codes, the global community must recognize the internal factors at play before blindly crying out for a simplistic ban against all child labor.[42] In Bolivia, children work to survive, and only ask for increased protection standards and decriminalization. The state should extend social protection and utilize integrated strategies that not only tackle the symptoms of child labor, but also its systemic and underlying causes for future long term progress.[43] The nation must invest in real, progressive measures that lift children and their families out of poverty, rather than provide temporary relief and counterproductive actions. Bolivia took a step backward and is bucking global trends with its new law, but unless short-term goals are sacrificed for long-run development through education and creating adult employment prospects, child labor and poverty alike will continue to be rife throughout the country.

By: Malavika Krishnan, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action.

Institutional affiliation is for identification purposes only and all opinions expressed are the author’s own.

Citations:

[1] Paola Flores, “Bolivia Legalizes Work by Children as Young as 10,” Bloomberg Businessweek, July 17, 2014, accessed August 14, 2014 http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2014-07-17/bolivia-on-verge-of-legalizing-work-from-age-10

[2] “Bolivia – World Development Indicators,” World Bank, accessed August 15, 2014, http://data.worldbank.org/country/bolivia#cp_wdi

[3] “Bolivia Sanctions Child Labor as Young as 10,” The Telegraph, July 4, 2014, accessed August 16, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/bolivia/10945253/Bolivia-sanctions-child-labour-as-young-as-10.html

[4] Paola Flores, “Bolivia Legalizes Work by Children as Young as 10,” Bloomberg Businessweek, July 17, 2014, accessed August 14, 2014 http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2014-07-17/bolivia-on-verge-of-legalizing-work-from-age-10

[5] “Bolivia Law Allows ‘Self-Employed Children’ Aged 10 to Work,” BBC News, July 17, 2014, accessed August 15, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-28360838

[6] Nicole Akoukou Thompson, “Bolivian Children as Young as 10 Years Old Being Put to Work to ‘Solve’ National Poverty” Latin Post, July 17, 2014, accessed August 15, 2014, http://www.latinpost.com/articles/17394/20140717/bolivian-children-young-10-years-old-being-put-work-solve.htm

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Yacouba Diallo, Alex Etienne and Farhad Mehran, “Global Child Labor Trends 2008 to 2012,” International Labor Organization, 2013, accessed August 15, 2014, http://www.ilo.org/ipec/Informationresources/WCMS_IPEC_PUB_23015/lang–en/index.htm

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Bolivia on Verge of Becoming First Country to Legalize Child Labor at 10 Years Old,” Fox News Latino, July 17, 2014, accessed August 15, 2014, http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2014/07/17/bolivia-on-verge-becoming-first-country-to-legalize-child-labor-at-10-years-old/

[13] Paola Flores, “Bolivia Legalizes Work by Children as Young as 10,” Bloomberg Businessweek, July 17, 2014, accessed August 14, 2014 http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2014-07-17/bolivia-on-verge-of-legalizing-work-from-age-10

[14] “Bolivia’s New Code on Children Welcome, but Concerns Remain,” UNICEF, July 23, 2014, accessed August 16, 2014, http://www.unicef.org/media/media_74569.html

[15] Henri Rose Cimatu, “In Bid to Eradicate Poverty, Bolivia Allowing Child Labor, Draws Flak,” Ecumenical News, July 10, 2014, accessed August 16, 2014, http://www.ecumenicalnews.com/article/in-bid-to-eradicate-poverty-bolivia-allowing-child-labor-draws-flak-25516

[16] Paola Flores, “Bolivia Legalizes Work by Children as Young as 10,” Bloomberg Businessweek, July 17, 2014, accessed August 14, 2014 http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2014-07-17/bolivia-on-verge-of-legalizing-work-from-age-10

[17] “Bolivia – World Development Indicators,” World Bank, accessed August 15, 2014, http://data.worldbank.org/country/bolivia#cp_wdi

[18] Marcela Estrada, “Bolivia Defies Treaties, Gives Go Ahead for Child Labor,” Panama Post, June 30, 2014, accessed August 15, 2014, http://panampost.com/marcela-estrada/2014/06/30/bolivia-defies-treaties-gives-go-ahead-for-child-labor/

[19] “Niños trabajadores de Bolivia exigen que nueva ley no limite trabajo infantile,” El Nuevo Herald, December 19, 2013, accessed August 21, 2014, http://www.elnuevoherald.com/2013/12/19/1639633/ninos-trabajadores-de-bolivia.html

[20] Marcela Estrada, “Bolivia Defies Treaties, Gives Go Ahead for Child Labor,” Panama Post, June 30, 2014, accessed August 15, 2014, http://panampost.com/marcela-estrada/2014/06/30/bolivia-defies-treaties-gives-go-ahead-for-child-labor/

[21] Sara Shahriari, “Bolivia to Allow 10-Year-Olds to Work,” The Guardian, July 8, 2014, accessed August 15, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/08/bolivia-legal-working-age-10

[22] Marcela Estrada, “Bolivia Defies Treaties, Gives Go Ahead for Child Labor,” Panama Post, June 30, 2014, accessed August 15, 2014, http://panampost.com/marcela-estrada/2014/06/30/bolivia-defies-treaties-gives-go-ahead-for-child-labor/

[23] Paola Flores, “Bolivia Legalizes Work by Children as Young as 10,” Bloomberg Businessweek, July 17, 2014, accessed August 14, 2014 http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2014-07-17/bolivia-on-verge-of-legalizing-work-from-age-10

[24] Sara Shahriari, “Bolivia to Allow 10-Year-Olds to Work,” The Guardian, July 8, 2014, accessed August 15, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/08/bolivia-legal-working-age-10

[25] Olivia Ward, “Banning Child Labor may Do More Harm than Good, Advocate Says,” The Hamilton Spectator, June 12, 2014, accessed August 16, 2014, http://www.thespec.com/news-story/4573098-banning-child-labour-may-do-more-harm-than-good-advocate-says/

[26] Paola Flores, “Bolivia Legalizes Work by Children as Young as 10,” Bloomberg Businessweek, July 17, 2014, accessed August 14, 2014 http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2014-07-17/bolivia-on-verge-of-legalizing-work-from-age-10

[27] Nicole Akoukou Thompson, “Bolivian Children as Young as 10 Years Old Being Put to Work to ‘Solve’ National Poverty” Latin Post, July 17, 2014, accessed August 15, 2014, http://www.latinpost.com/articles/17394/20140717/bolivian-children-young-10-years-old-being-put-work-solve.htm

[28] Kurt Henne and David Mosely, “Combating the Worst Forms of Child Labor in Bolivia,” American Bar Association Human Rights Magazine, Vol. 32 No. 1 (Winter 2005), accessed August 16, 2014, http://www.americanbar.org/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/human_rights_vol32_2005/winter2005/hr_winter05_bolivia.html

[29] Paola Flores, “Bolivia Legalizes Work by Children as Young as 10,” Bloomberg Businessweek, July 17, 2014, accessed August 14, 2014 http://www.businessweek.com/ap/2014-07-17/bolivia-on-verge-of-legalizing-work-from-age-10

[30] Marcela Estrada, “Bolivia Defies Treaties, Gives Go Ahead for Child Labor,” Panama Post, June 30, 2014, accessed August 16, 2014, http://panampost.com/marcela-estrada/2014/06/30/bolivia-defies-treaties-gives-go-ahead-for-child-labor/

[31] Nicole Akoukou Thompson, “Bolivian Children as Young as 10 Years Old Being Put to Work to ‘Solve’ National Poverty” Latin Post, July 17, 2014, accessed August 15, 2014, http://www.latinpost.com/articles/17394/20140717/bolivian-children-young-10-years-old-being-put-work-solve.htm

[32] Ibid.

[33] Aidan McQuade, “Bolvia’s Child Labor Law Shames Us All,” The Guardian, 25 July, 2014, accessed August 16, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/jul/25/bolivia-child-labour-law-exploitation-slavery

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Mirra Banchón, “Finding Balance in the Child Labor Debate,” Deutsche Welle, June 22, 2014, accessed August 16, 2014, http://www.dw.de/ilo-child-labor-in-decline-but-worst-forms-persist/a-17702380

[38] Esther Felden, “ILO: Child Labor in Decline, but Worst Forms Persist,” Deutsche Welle, June 12, 2014, accessed August 15, 2014, http://www.dw.de/ilo-child-labor-in-decline-but-worst-forms-persist/a-17702380

[39] “The Long Road toward Eradicating Child Labor in Latin America,” Wharton University of Pennsylvania, August 8, 2014, accessed August 16, 2014, http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/ending-child-labor-in-latin-america/

[40] Marcela Estrada, “Bolivia Defies Treaties, Gives Go Ahead for Child Labor,” Panama Post, June 30, 2014, accessed August 16, 2014, http://panampost.com/marcela-estrada/2014/06/30/bolivia-defies-treaties-gives-go-ahead-for-child-labor/

[41] Ibid.

[42] Olivia Ward, “Banning Child Labor may Do More Harm than Good, Advocate Says,” The Hamilton Spectator, June 12, 2014, accessed August 16, 2014, http://www.thespec.com/news-story/4573098-banning-child-labour-may-do-more-harm-than-good-advocate-says/

[43] Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *