Last month Bolivia took the unprecedented step of legalising child labour from the age of 10. Bolivia is now the only country in the world to allow children under 14 into the work force.
The move has been met with condemnation from the UN and various human rights movements. They believe that while sending children to work may be a short-term solution to a family’s economic woe, it actually increases the cycle of poverty in the long run. Children who miss out on an education during childhood will statistically have far lower earnings as an adult. They then tend to send their own children to work as a way to make ends meet. Human rights groups say more money should be invested in at risk families to keep their children in school.
The government sees the issue differently. They say the new legislation is only acknowledging the reality of life of the poorest Bolivian families. An estimated 1 million children (15% of the workforce) already work in Bolivia out of necessity due to extreme poverty. That many people are difficult to police, so rather than punishing the vulnerable, the government will instead offer working children better rights and safeguards. Younger children must only work while accompanied by their parents and are still required to attend school. Children who do formal contracted work must be over the age of 12 and will for the first time receive the minimum wage. Above all, the government stresses that there is simply no alternative in a country where half the population lives in poverty. El presidente, Evo Morales, supported the move with a personal anecdote of how he used to work as a llama herder to help his parents put food on the table.
One doesn’t have to be in Bolivia long to see the reality of the situation. Shopkeepers and restaurateurs everywhere get their children to help out with menial tasks. Children shine shoes in the street or sell candy to passersby. Worst of all, some children do hard labour in mines which significantly lowers their life expectancy.
In an ideal world, the Bolivian government would invest more money to keep vulnerable children in school as the Human Rights groups have suggested. But in reality, Bolivia is a third world country with limited funds in its coffers. One can only hope that as Bolivia progresses, which it is doing so rapidly, the issue will gradually fade away.