There are around 850 000 child labourers in Bolivia today. What may shock you more than this number is that most of these are legal workers. In July of 2014 Bolivia was the world’s first country to legalize employment for children as young as 10 years old. The goal of this move was to provide them with increased protection through active regulation of their employment. Internationally, 14 years old is the legal standard for children to gain employment under the International Labour Organization’s Minimum Age Convention. Bolivia’s law permitted two exceptions to this international standard: children aged 10 can be self-employed and children aged 12 can be employed by a third party with the permission of a parent. This law has been met with harsh criticism from human rights bodies globally, but is strongly supported by many in Bolivia, including children themselves. In fact, this legislative change was first brought forward by Bolivia’s working children and adolescent group, UNATSBO. Here are the arguments for and against this law and what child labour in Bolivia looks like today, three years after the law was brought into effect.
Why legalize child labour? The law is meant to provide increased protection for children in South America’s poorest country. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales was a former child labourer and this is often seen as a reality of life in Bolivia. Under the 2014 law, all children’s jobs have to be approved by authorities, dangerous jobs such as mining are prohibited for children, and children must attend school while they work. The law also requires a minimum wage be paid to child workers, which previously had to be negotiated by children and resulted in gross underpayment issues.
Why not to legalize child labour? The International Labour Organization, UNICEF, and Human Rights Watch have spoken out against legalizing child labour in Bolivia for numerous reasons. One of these is research on the intergenerational cycle of poverty and child labour, wherein child labour interferes with education and gaining decent work that can provide education for the next generation. As the rest of the world continues to take steps towards eliminating child labour by 2025 under the Sustainable Development Goals, Bolivia seems to be stepping in an opposite direction. The law also threatens the safety of children as it fails to prohibit hazardous work when it is carried out within the private sphere of the family or community.
What is the status of child labour in Bolivia today? As is often the case, a well intentioned law without proper administration and enforcement can fall short in its realization. With 60-70% of applications made by working children and their parents left unaddressed due to financial constraints, many in Bolivia are simply ignoring the requirements of the law. Beyond financial issues, a lack of resources means that not every municipality in Bolivia has an ombudsman to deal with cases in the area and many children remain unprotected by the law. On the other side of the coin, some say that the law is finally giving children theagency to speak about their rights instead of letting adults speak for them.