According to John Otis “As a boy, Bolivian President Evo Morales helped his destitute family by selling ice cream, baking bread, laying bricks and, once herding 50 llamas across the Andes to trade them for corn and dried meat”
Years later, Mr. Morales, was now re-elected to his third term. He has recently backed a new law to lower the minimum age for child workers. According to Human Rights Watch, this new law would make Bolivia the worlds only nation to legally allow boys and girls to hold a job as young as 10 years old.
There are two ways to look at this new law. On one hand, it could encourage more young children to seek jobs, slow their education and perpetuate a cycle of poverty. This could result in putting Bolivia in an uncomfortable situation with the International Labor Organization, which states that 14 is the minimum work age for developing countries. On the other hand, the Bolivian government officials say the new law simply recognized the harsh reality of a large indigenous population where 42% remains poor and children very often support their families by working in the morning, and going to school at night.
Bolivian officials say that the new law will help create a wider safety net for under 14 workers by mandating that they register for work permits and that employers must provide humane conditions and fair compensation, are the main points of the law.
According to Unicef children under 14 make up 58% of the 850,000 child laborers in Bolivia, and they would prefer to be the ones pressuring lawmakers than adult lobbyists.
This issue is not new, last year the Union of Boy, Girl and Adolescent Workers of Bolivia marched in La Paz to the presidential palace to press its case for legal recognition of under 14 workers. TV images of gasping red-eyed children was the result of anti-riot police firing tear gas, this alarmed President Morales. From this, Morales concluded that the state should not outlaw child labor, but it should protect them.
The Bolivian Legislative Assembly following Morales advice rewrote parts of Bolivia’s Code for Children and Adolescents. The Code now states that children starting at age 12 and have parental consent can work under contract, and those of age 10 may be self-employed, both as long as they stay in school. One must not forget that it is largely unenforced the requirement for work permits for children under 14.
What do the children get from this law? Some may say that they can improve their math skills, have money to buy school uniforms and books. They may also be too tired to pay attention in class, do homework after selling bus tickets, and washing dishes. There is also a high possibility that the law will go unenforced.
If the law goes unenforced, the government may not intervene when employers abuse children, specially if workplace inspections are rare. This already happens, preteens work jobs that are too hazardous such as harvesting Brazil nuts, using machetes to cut sugar care, and brick-making involving toxic fumes.
The child advocacy offices are the ones who distribute work permits for children, and are required to evaluate the physical and mental state of the child and determine how dire the need for them to work is. A criticism is that these offices do not even exist in about half of Bolivia’s 341 towns and cities.
What are Bolivia’s threat of implications regarding the new law dealing with child labor? The International Labour Organization has concern over the new law, but agree what Bolivian authorities intention is to promote economic development for all its citizens.
Many NGOs such as Human Rights Watch express concern of the difficulty of enforcing the law with only 78 inspectors, which means there would be one inspector monitorin 10,897 of the 850,000 children working in Bolivia. Another criticism is that “child labor perpetuates the cycle of poverty” and it is “counterproductive to the Bolivian economy.”
It is easy to get angry at Bolivia for taking such a regressive step in the struggle against child labour. No one except NGOs are taking notice. What Bolivia needs is sustained and expanded progress to end child labour. Bolivia does not feel threatened by the international community to end child labor. The possible threat may never come since NGOs such as CARE actually help fund educational programs.
For Bolivia to make a change, it needs a push and the threat of loosing support by its indigenous population. Even if the Bolivian people condemns its children to a life of poverty, it still does not have the ability to guarantee universal access to free, quality education and healthcare.