There is no agreed definition of child labor. Public discourse uses the phrase to refer to child time in activities that are somehow harmful to the child. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child emphasizes the importance of protecting children from: ‘ work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development’ (1989, Article 32). The society in general understand of child labor to activities that violate this standard. Whether the work is dangerous depends on the tasks performed in the work and working conditions (Edmonds, 2008). Children in Bolivia are engaged in the worst forms of child labor (Ages 7-14):
1. Agriculture 70.9%
- planting and harvesting corn, cotton, and peanuts
- production and harvesting of Brazil nuts/chestnuts and sugarcane
- ranching and raising cattle
- plucking chickens
2. Services 21.2%
- street work
- shoe shining
- working as transportation assistants
- recycling garbage
- domestic service
3. Industry 7.9%
- mining of gold, silver, tin, and zinc
- construction, including heavy lifting and shoveling
- production of bricks
In 2003, the UNICEF report three types of work for they are the worst of child labor. It is estimated that 10% of all Bolivians who work in the mining industry are children and adolescents. The dangerous working conditions in the mines pose imminent threats to the wellbeing of children. Most of these are just squads of miners exploiting excavations by themselves, without any precautionary procedures or equipment maintenance. A child miner could very likely be blown up while shoveling into a wheelbarrow, as unplanned dynamiting constantly happens below the ground. Working in mines also harms the children in the long run. The average life expectancy of Bolivian miners is less than 40 years, as they are frequently exposed to toxic chemicals and dust all the time.
Similarly, an incurable lung disease by the name of “silicosis” is quite common among experienced miners. Since many children start working in the mining industry at a younger age, they are more vulnerable to asbestos particles and noxious gases due to physical underdevelopment. In addition, it is worth noting the heavy psychological toll such desperate conditions take on child miners. When the children go into mines, they understand they may not be able to come home that day, given the said hazards prevailing underground. If they do manage to survive the day, it doesn’t change the fact they probably do not have a very long life. The inescapable misfortune, in time, creates familiarity with tragedy and acceptance of death, both for the children and their families. What makes the plight of Bolivian child miners even worse is the exploitative treatment they receive (Fontana & Grugel 2017). In the UNICEF report, it is disclosed that there are occasions when children are given a minimal percentage of the minerals, they extract rather than actual remuneration. The adolescents, who mostly work night shifts in order to go to school during the day, make just $3 USD for 12 hours (Yu, 2016).
On the other hand, the second and third worst types of work for Bolivian children are sugarcane and Brazil nuts harvesting. They are both agricultural activities in nature. It is calculated that some 40,000 peasants make up the manpower, approximately one-fifth of who are children aged 9 to 13. On plantations, children harvesters are constantly exposed to dangers from snakebites, falling nuts and the misuse of machetes. Additionally, the children tend to suffer from malaria and diarrhea, due to the lack of running water, sanitary services and basic medical care. The high level of child involvement for the most part in unpaid household work in rural areas. Bolivian female children in the rural areas are engaged in unpaid household labor most intensive. Apart from the cultural reasons, it is also because women in these places are mainly expected to assume nothing more than familiar and communal responsibilities. Girls embrace on this role early in life and their school achievements are not as valued as those of boys (Yu, 2016).
On July 3, 2014, a law governing children and adolescents’ rights was enacted unanimously by the Legislative Assembly of the Pluractional State of Bolivia. The code incorporated provisions that were deemed very controversial in global history of child legislation. As it stipulates, Bolivia officially legalizes the socioeconomic existence of child labor and permits children as young as 10-years-old to perform in labor, rendering the age limit the lowest in the entire world. According to a national report on the magnitude and characteristics of child labor in this country, about 28% of the minors between the ages of 5 and 17 years old, approximately 850,000, are actively economic. Of these working children, as many as 746,000 (25%) have jobs that are considered as hazardous and lethal to their health (Adam 2016).
Within this context, the country passed the Law N.548 Boy Girl and Adolescent Code, turning it into the first nation in the world where 10-year-olds working on the streets are legally institutionalized. In 1990, 1997 and 2003, the national government took a proactive role in ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), ILO Convention 1384 and Convention 1825 respectively, positioning its stance perfectly in line with the global trend to prohibit child labor. The Bolivian administration established the Commission on Children and Adolescents at both departmental and municipal levels. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children and Adolescents was also founded in most of the municipalities as an auxiliary agency aiding the local Commission. In addition, the National Commission for the Eradication of Child Labor was also created in 2002 under the coordination of the Ministry of Labor.
In 1997, Bolivia approved the International Labor Organization Convention 138 on minimum age for entry into employment. The international agreement states that a child’s involvement in the labor market can only happen after the age of 14 years old. However, the new Law N.548 goes against this convention, as it allows children below the age of 14 to be employed and even to engage in acknowledged unsafe work. Applies to all Bolivian children and adolescents up to the age of 18. It requires all levels of the state to guarantee the minors the full and effective action of their rights. Another role is assigned to the family and society, for the protection, education and development of children under equitable conditions (Yu, 2016).
The section regarding children’s rights consists of the following chapters:
- right to life, health and healthy environment
- rights to family life
- right to nationality, self-identity and affiliation
- right to education, information, culture and recreation
- right to have opinion, participation and petition
- right to employment protection
- right to freedom, dignity and image privacy
- right to personal integrity and protection against violence
A brief list of children’s duties is included in the code as well. In addition to provisions on the protection of children’s rights, the legislation contains an entire section on the juvenile justice system, which its predecessor failed to address. Appropriate penalties are imposed to cases of bullying, harassment, sexual violence and infanticide (Yu, 2016).
Since the creation, the law received responses all around the world. The United Nations, the International Labor Organization, Human Rights Watch as well as some countries such as Germany and the United States publicly expressed their condemnation of what they perceived to be a regression on human rights and called for immediate repeal of the child labor clause. The ILO disapproves of Bolivia’s legalization of child labor from 10 years old. In an official statement issued they expressed its four concerns regarding the legislation, which were directed to the self-employment at 10, the employment under a third party at 12, the labor involvement in hazardous work in the family or community sphere and the underlying viewpoint as to the inevitability of child labor and denounced the code as “a return to the times of slavery”.
In the other hand, the UNICEF point of view, arguing that premature labor participation removes children from education and therefore exposes their intellectual development and violates them innocence and right to protection and criticized the law for that it “could encourage more young children to seek jobs, stunt their education and perpetuate a cycle of poverty”. As for the Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based humanitarian NGO that had even presented a petition to the Bolivian president Evo Morales in 2014 urging not to lower the minimum age of children’s employment, condemned the code as setting a bad example and being out of step with the rest of the world. In addition, the advocacy director of the children’s rights division at HWR, further expressed disappointment at the Bolivian state’s adoption of such “counterproductive measures” in a column article published on the organization’s website. In their opinion, the government has the responsibility to carry out laws that protect children from child labor rather than facilitating their involvement. In Germany, the deputy chairperson of the German Parliament’s Committee on Economic Cooperation and Development, questioned the approach of the Bolivian legislature, arguing that no politician can resort to child labor as a systematic solution for poverty, not even temporarily (Fontana & Grugel 2017).
At the same time, ironically, Bolivian working children celebrated the victory of the regulation of child labor as a courageous recognition of their rights and contribution by the state, and a promise to provide them with institutional protection in terms of income, health and education. The group that pushed the formulation of the code expressed their appreciation and gratitude to the Bolivian government for respecting the national reality rather than surrendering to international opinion. Moreover, the working children vigorously defended their state in the face of enthusiastic censure from the international community. Calling the opposition insensitive and condescending (Fontana & Grugel 2017).
In conclusion, when a child spends time in activities that are somehow harmful to them is considered child labor. In other words, work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to their health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. It is divided in three forms: agriculture (farming), service (selling on the streets) and industry (mines). Child labor has been a worldwide important topic, that’s why Bolivia decided to create a law to mitigate this problem. They created Law N.548 Boy Girl and Adolescent Code in July 3, 2014. This code is governing children and adolescents’ rights. It was enacted unanimously by the Legislative Assembly of the Pluractional State of Bolivia, it allows children under the age of 14 to be employed and even to engage in acknowledged unsafe work. Requires the state to guarantee the minors the full and effective action of their “rights”.
Bolivia thought that by doing this regulation it would eliminate the controversy, but its was all the way around. Organizations publicly expressed their condemnation of what they perceived to be a regression on human rights and called for immediate repeal of the child labor clause. They thought is “a return to the times of slavery’’. Ironically, the children celebrated the victory of the regulation of child labor as a courageous recognition of their rights and contribution by the state, and a promise to provide them with institutional protection in terms of income, health and education. This code is very contradicting and abusive for children who are not completely develop to be working in hazardous conditions. The law does not protect the child’s life on the contrary, it puts the child in even more risk for allowing them to work at such young age. Even though, Bolivians children participated on writing the code, there is no justification that permits laboring in conditions that are risking their life and the labor average age. Finally, any child labor needs to be abolished.
- Adam, I. (2016). Child Labour in Bolivia: Violations of human and children rights in Bolivia. Retrieved from: file:///C:/Users/Rafael/Downloads/Child_Labour_in_Bolivia.pdf
- Asamblea Legislativa Plurinacional. “Ley 548 Código Niña, Niño y Adolescente.” Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, July 17, 2014.
- Edmonds, E. (2008). Defining child labor: A review of the definitions of child labor in policy research. Retrieved from: file:///C:/Users/Rafael/Documents/Child%20labor%20assay/Defining_Child_Labour_En.pdf
- Fontana, L., Grugel, J. (2017). Deviant and Hyper-Compliance: The Domestic Politics of Child Labor in Bolivia and Argentina. Human Rights Quarterly 2017, 39(3), 631- 656. Retrieved from: https://eprint.ncl.ac.uk/file_store/production/245228/E0958E92-0D70-4594-A4BB-B900C0E7CDCD.pdf
- Unicef. (1989) FACT SHEET: A summary of the rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Retreive from: https://www.unicef.org/crc/files/Rights_overview.pdf
- Yu, J. (2016). Understanding the legalization of child labor: a Case study of the Bolivian Child and Adolescent Code Reform. (Dissertation). University of Miami. Retrieved from: https://scholarlyrepository.miami.edu/oa_theses/642/?utm_source=scholarlyrepository.miami.edu%2Foa_theses%2F642&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages