Monday, September 1, 2014

The New Child Labour Law in Bolivia – A brief analysis

On 15th July 2014 a new law was passed in Bolivia, which legally allows children from the age of 10 to work. Previously, in line the international law, the official minimum working age was 14.
The change in the law has sparked international condemnation from various human rights NGOs, including the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Human Rights Watch. This is not surprising as Bolivia has contravened its legal obligations by ignoring the ILO’s Minimum Age Convention, which it ratified on 11 June 1997.

However, this is a complicated issue and it will not serve us well to analyse it solely in terms of one-dimensional international norms. Instead, we should try to understand the current socio-economic context of Bolivia.

To quote Evo Morales, The President and former child labourer:

“To eliminate work for boys and girls would be like eliminating people’s social conscience”

These are strong words, but I feel many Bolivians would agree with them. The new law has been met positively here, for example Bolivia’s Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (UNATSBO) actively campaigned for its passing. To even have such a trade union, comprised of 15,000 child workers, is unique in itself and reflects the circumstances on the ground. It is estimated that there are approximately 850,000 child labourers in Bolivia, working jobs that include market sellers, shoe-shiners, crop pickers and miners. Child labour has always been a common tradition in rural communities and, with the growing trend of urbanisation, this custom has now migrated into the cities of Bolivia. Law or no law, this is the reality.

UNATSBO argue that prior to the law child workers “were invisible”, but now safeguards are in place to ensure their rights are secured. If children are working out of necessity to help feed their families, which is the case, then they deserve as much protection as possible. The issue should not be pushed underground and out of sight. The arguments are similar to those given for the regulation and legalisation of prostitution in the UK.

The safeguards try to take into account some of the main concerns directed at the new law. For example, 10 – 12 year olds must be supervised by a parent and cannot undertake third-party employment. In addition, all children who are working must still attend school. Therefore, if implemented properly, the law could actually increase the levels of enrolment in schools. Having said this, the Ministry of Labour only has 78 inspectors to enforce child labour laws nationwide and it is not clear if this will increase. Consequently, it seems doubtful that the safeguards will be successfully realised.

Another recent development in relation to child labour in Bolivia is the opening of two “Listen Centres”, which provides emotional, career, legal and family support to child labourers. It also provides a space for them to have leisure time. This is a strong step forward in terms of achieving the full potential of Bolivian children, but can two centres deal with the needs of 850,000 children?

One of the ubiquitous shoe-shiners in La Paz

In response to the arguments in favour of the law, Jo Becker, Advocacy Director of the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, has described the law as “legalising exploitation”. By stepping away from almost universally agreed international norms on the minimum working age for children, Bolivia risks legitimising the practice. It is important not to lose sight of the vulnerability of children between the ages of 10 – 14, where decisions are often made on their behalf and they are neither physically nor intellectually able to stand up to oppression. If we normalise child labour, we risk making it more difficult to eradicate in the future.

The ILO estimates that 215 million children find themselves in adverse labour conditions, 115 million of which are in conditions akin to slavery. This is a big problem that needs to be tackled on a global level and legalising child labour sends out the wrong message. Considering the 30% decrease in child labour since the year 2000, the opprobrium directed towards Bolivia for being the first country to legalise child labour is understandable.

It is felt by some that arguments in relation to the regulation and protection of rights cannot always be used to justify the reality on the ground. If slavery or child prostitution were widespread, which in some countries they are, would arguments for legalisation be deployed? Sometimes, the exploitation, or risk of exploitation, is so severe and the act so abhorrent that to legitimise the practice is devoid of all rationality. It is felt by the international community that child labour is one such issue.

As Jo Baker from Human Rights Watch emphasises, the new law is merely a “short term solution”. It fails to address the structural issues that necessitate the need for children to work in the first place. Focus could be placed on creating better economic opportunities for parents, support for the family to keep children in school and improved vocational education. Currently the government has the Juancito Pinto subsidy program where families receive a small annual cash grant if they have a child in school, but unfortunately it has failed to address the problem.

It is clear that child labour is a complex multi-faceted issue and I have only outlined some of the main arguments in this blog. From the Bolivian perspective, the new law is completely understandable. It reflects reality and tries to provide protection to a vulnerable group in society.

However, I am not convinced that the consequences of the law have been properly thought through. Child labour does not lead to social mobility. In fact, the law may actually have the effect of entrenching the cycle of poverty these children find themselves in, now trapped in a culture where it is legitimate, normal and necessary to work from a young age. Bolivia, by passing this law, has decided to remain a country reliant on the labour of 850,000 young children.

A vision for the future

Fundamentally, when one postulates a perfect world, are children between the ages of 10 – 14 working or are they in school receiving an education, playing with friends and learning new skills through extracurricular activities? Furthermore, and perhaps more interestingly, is the latter ideal just a “Western” concept of childhood that cannot be applied universally, or is it a world we can all strive for?

Written by Richard Sweetman.

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