If you asked anyone in the developed world about what they thought about child labour, the answer would be an almost universal condemnation. Yet, what if your country was so impoverished that parents sending their children to work everyday was the only way for them to survive? Bolivia’s social and economic conditions are so desperate for families that there are as many as 800,000 child labourers across the country. The situation is so bad that the government is considering lowering the minimum age of employment from 14 to 12 years old.

Image courtesy of Christophe Meneboeuf, © 2006. Some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Christophe Meneboeuf, © 2006. Some rights reserved.

Bolivia’s president Evo Morales, himself a former child labourer, is considering support to amend the country’s labour laws, which would abolish a minimum age for so called ‘independent’ work, and lower the minimum age of employment for all other jobs to 12. This comes at the suggestion of a union for child and adolescent workers. Given that Bolivia is already home to workers as young as 6 years old, reforming labour laws might not seem such a bad place to start. Latin America is controversially famous for its mining industry, and this is one such area where child labourers contribute to the Bolivian economy. There are around 300,000 child miners, ranging from the age of 6-16, who are currently unprotected and outside the realm of international labour laws.[1] Not all child labourers are subject to harsh conditions such as those down a mine, with some instead working as street sellers, car washers and such in the busy streets of La Paz, yet they still want and need the protection of the law.

With such staggering numbers of children forced to work at a young age, would it not be wise to regulate labour conditions until such time as poverty reduction measures took effect? Many children workers aren’t involved in heavy labour and are not held to their jobs to perhaps the same degree as would warrant the label ‘slavery’. Yet for children so young, work on the streets, in crowded markets, and in sweaty kitchens is a daily source of uncertainty and risk. A blanket ban on child labour is clearly ineffective, so measures must be taken to protect working children and to look out for those who are too young to look out for themselves. If labour was regulated and controlled through mimimum wage, working hour limits, and other social security legislation, then domestic law could provide more of a protection for Bolivian children than international law appears to have done so far. If children are going to work, regardless of the laws on minimum age, they should be protected.

This argument may appeal at some level of common sense but politics and law is not only about regulating the status quo, but about aspiring to a better, more equitable and more dignified society. There are reasons why domestic and international law uphold minimum ages for paid labour, and these should be universally respected. There is a place for children to grow up safely and learn the skills needed for adulthood: it’s called school, not the workplace. Poverty drives parents to send their children to work, and children to the streets looking for employment, but the cycle of poverty cannot be broken without educating the next generation. While the proposals for lowering the employment age have been portrayed as a measure to help lower poverty, it would in fact perpetuate the cycle of poverty and, as Human Rights Watch denounced, be a “backward step” for the children of Bolivia.[2] The situation of Bolivia’s child workers could be improved without condoning and legitimising the practice. Other anti-poverty measures would have a far greater impact than a law that increases the likelihood of children consigning themselves to a life of low wage employment, low literacy and potentially harmful working environments. Bolivia must address the root causes of poverty rather than regulating its effects, including that of child labour.

Despite these proposals being considered by the Bolivian legislature, Bolivia has ratified the International Labour Convention No. 138, which stipulates minimum working age must be 15 years, unless the country is still developing its economy and education system, in which case it can be 14. The possibility of Bolivia circumventing its duties on the protection of children is a damning critique of the effectiveness of international law, especially international human rights law. Indeed, it would seem that so far the guardians of international law have had little to say about these developments, leaving it up to members of civil society to defend the human rights of children in Bolivia. Upon announcement of the proposals, children’s rights advocacy leaders from Anti-Slavery International, Global March Against Child Labour, and Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter to President Morales expressing that “Child labour as a double edged dagger could further deprive adults from decent working conditions because employers will always prefer children over adults for they do not demand minimum wages and cannot stand up for their rights”. [3] The inability of children to stand up for their own rights is precisely why developments like those in Bolivia are damaging and why international human rights law is required. However, there must be better enforcement mechanisms for international law to rise above the doctrine of sovereignty, and the pressures and priorities of developing economies.

Of course, Bolivia is not the only country to confront practices of child labour, and it may seem unfair to criticise Bolivia so much when these proposals originated from a children’s workers union arguing for better conditions. The International Labour Organisation reports that child labour has reduced in recent years, going down by one third in since 2000. However, the number of child workers remains far too high, at 168 million children worldwide.[4] With globalisation, the increase in contracting and outsourcing manufacturing, and the complexity of supply chains, it can be all to easy for companies to be blissfully unaware of their implication in child labour practices. Ultimately, we must be doing more to protect children’s human rights, but perhaps this needs to be tacked on three interrelated fronts: improved international law implementation, treatment of the root causes of poverty, and domestic protection of workers’ conditions.

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