On Thursday morning (July 17) hundreds of children and teenagers gathered in the presidential offices in La Paz, Bolivia. They came for the signing of historic legislation that includes provisions allowing children as young as 10 to work.
Eddy Roman Davalos Cayo, 15, has worked diverse jobs since he was 8 years old, including bricklayer's assistant and dishwasher. Now a leader of the Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (UNATsBO) he views his work as an important contribution to his family. "I can buy my own school supplies," he says. "I don't ask my parents for much, and that takes a weight off them."
The new Boys, Girls and Adolescents' Code defines many aspects of young peoples' rights in Bolivia, but the articles drawing most attention set the minimum working age for children. Formerly fixed by law at 14 years old, now government institutions charged with protecting children can allow people as young as 10 to work independently in exceptional cases, as long as the child has permission from his or her guardian, the work is voluntary and not defined as dangerous, and hours are limited to not interfere with school. Those as young as 12 may work for an employer under similar regulations.
Law and Reality
This change may seem an unprecedented step backward, but in a country where some one million people live on less than $1.25 a day entire families are often economically compelled to work for survival, and a child shining shoes, herding sheep or selling candy on the street is a fairly common sight. Child labor, here defined as work performed by a person under 14, or dangerous work performed by someone under 18, is a reality for some 800,000 young people across this Andean nation, especially indigenous children, according to government data.
Proponents for lowering the minimum age, including members of UNATsBO, hold that making children's work illegal only leaves them open to exploitation and abuse by patrons and employers alike.
"It's a good law," said Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera at the signing ceremony. "A law that incorporates reality and transformation, international agreements with the present situation, and develops viable and concrete ways to transform children's lives." He was referring in part to Bolivia's status as party to the International Labour Organization's (ILO) Minimum Age Convention, which sets the minimum working age in developing countries at 14.
UNATsBO, which brings together young people between 6 and 17, lobbied the government to decrease the minimum age. Its several thousand members represent a small, vocal and mobilized group that marched, met with President Evo Morales and drafted its own proposals over the past several years.
The group's local offices, which often serve as resources where working children can access help with school, health and information on their basic rights, receive funding from non-governmental organizations. In response to questions about whether young members are controlled by adults behind the scenes, Davalos Cayos says that is not the case.
"We are not manipulated," he says. "We put forward what we think, what we feel based on our reality…Nobody tells us what to say."
Legal and Protected?
Not everyone agrees that changes to the minimum age are in young people's best interest. In January, Human Rights Watch and several other groups addressed a letter to President Morales objecting to the decrease. "If children as young as 12 are permitted to work, they will miss out on education during the very formative years of their development and risk being trapped in repetitive tasks, eroding their skills and prospective employability in future." the letter said. "With about 850,000 child laborers in Bolivia and only 78 inspectors, the monitoring task per inspector is 10,897 child laborers already."
The ILO also plans to review the new legislation.
Whether the new legislation offers young workers more resources and protection or remains words on a page that do little to alter the status quo depends heavily on how national and local governments create and fund institutions capable of monitoring and bolstering their wellbeing.
But for his part, Yawar Mamani, 10, is happy because he may be able to legally accompany his mother selling juice in a market stall. "Now no one can bother me because I work," he says.