On 15 July 2014 a new law was passed in Bolivia which legally allows children from the age of ten to work. Previously, in line with international law, the official minimum working age was fourteen. Such a 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 consequently contravened its legal obligations by ignoring the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Minimum Age Convention which was ratified on 11 June 1997.

As a complicated issue, it is important to avoid analysing the situation solely in light of one-dimensional international norms. Instead, there is a need to try and understand the current socio-economic context of Bolivia in particular. Evo Morales, the President and former child labourer, cites that “to eliminate work for boys and girls would be like eliminating people’s social conscience.” These are strong words, but having spent three months in Bolivia this summer, I feel many Bolivians would agree with them.

The new law has been met positively, with Bolivia’s Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (UNATSBO) actively campaigning 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 as market sellers, shoe-shiners, crop pickers and miners. Child labour has always been a common tradition in rural communities. With the growing trend of urbanisation, this custom has now migrated into the cities: law or no law, this is the reality.

UNATSBO further argues that child workers “were invisible” prior to the law, but now safeguards are in place to ensure their rights are secured. If children are working out of necessity to help feed their families, as is predominantly the case, then they deserve as much protection as possible. The issue should not be pushed underground and out of sight. The safeguards try to take into account some of the main concerns directed at the new law. For example, ten to twelve 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 scholarly enrolment.

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. 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 the majority of 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 ten and fourteen; their decisions are often made by others on their behalf and they are neither physically or 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 around the world, of which 115 million are in conditions akin to slavery. This is clearly 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 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 in order to support the family to keep children in school and improved vocational education.

One of the ubiquitous shoe-shiners in La Paz
One of the ubiquitous shoe-shiners in La Paz

It is therefore apparent that child labour is a complex multi-faceted issue, with only a few key arguments outlined in this article. From the Bolivian perspective, the new law is completely reasonable. It reflects reality and tries to provide protection to a vulnerable group in society.

However, it is arguable that the consequences of the law have not been properly thought through. Generally, 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 as they are 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.

When one postulates a perfect world, there is a tendency to envisage children between the ages of ten and fourteen in school receiving an education, playing with friends and learning new skills through extracurricular activities instead of working. We should consider whether this ideal is merely, and perhaps more interestingly, a Western concept of childhood which cannot really be implemented worldwide in any practical way.