On the 17th of July, Bolivia became the first country in the world to legalize child labor. The legal age of workers was decreased from 14 to 10, and signed into law by Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera.
The law stipulates that as long as a child has permission from parents and is currently enrolled in school, they are allowed to work.
Human rights groups and child labor councils have decried the law, stating that it goes against international agreements. However, for those in Bolivia, there’s wide ranging support.
One of the senators who sponsored the bill told the AP that, “Child labour already exists in Bolivia and it’s difficult to fight it. Rather than persecute it, we want to protect the rights and guarantee the labour security of children.”
However, Jo Becker who works with Human Rights Watch countered this argument, saying “Bolivia’s move is out of step with the rest of the world,” she said, “child labour may be seen as a short-term solution to economic hardship, but is actually a cause of poverty.”
It’s a fine line to walk in terms of local custom and international law. Bolivia has a long history of employing children, and sees them as an intrinsic part of the family economy. Attempting to regulate the involvement of children in this customary practice is seen by many, including the President of Bolivia, as a step forward, rather than backward.
Although currently illegal in most countries, child workers are common in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and South America. They are responsible for making our iPhones, our garments and even mining for the minerals we put in our batteries.
It’s a difficult subject to broach, because for many families, the significant factor in familial income makes child workers almost imperative. When a parent must take time off to go out of town, or if they’re out of work due to sickness or injury, the child is expected to pick up the slack. After all, most 12 year olds, if asked, would rather work and eat than go to school and starve. It is a stark and unfortunate reality, but one that millions of people face on a global scale.
However, this also leaves children open to a myriad of abuses. Children who work in factories or away from homes are far more likely to suffer sexual abuse, physical abuse and lose their education.
HRW notes that even with Bolivia’s safeguards, ensuring that child workers are in school, it’s likely education will still suffer, stating that “Children who work are often too tired to complete their homework or maintain regular attendance, and are far more likely to drop out of school.”
The root cause of all of this is poverty, and HRW goes on to say that “Instead of facilitating child labor, the Bolivian government should be investing in real solutions to lift children and their families out of poverty. President Morales should not sign this misguided bill into law.”
However, even within the United States, children are often allowed to work in dangerous agricultural positions as young as 14. Many people, who grew up on farms, note that their work began at a much younger age. These days, there is a romanticism attached to such ideologies, with essays commending learning the ‘value of hard work’ despite the 5:30 am start to chores and the 5:30 pm resting times for kids as young as 10.
This is why it’s so important to recognize the role culture plays in putting children to work. Bolivia’s culture has long been one where children chip in, and even President Evo Morales talks of spending his childhood herding livestock in his hometown. He has been quoted as saying, “Eliminating work for boys and girls would be like eliminating people’s social conscience.”
If we are going to regulate child labor, is it better to fly against culture or put safeguards firmly in place to protect those who will end up doing it anyway off the books? It is a question Bolivia has clearly answered, much to the dismay of international child labor activists who fear this may cause resurgences in child labor across the region.