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Bolivia child workers reject labour proposal

Government wants to bring child labour law into line with international norms and raise minimum working age to 14.
Last modified: 28 Jan 2014 06:32

There are an estimated 850,000 child workers in Bolivia, a country with a population of nearly 11 million.

But in December, when the government tried to raise the age at which youngsters could be legally employed, many of them protested. Some were beaten by police when they marched on the government palace in the capital, La Paz.

President Evo Morales, himself a former child worker, then invited representatives of the main children's organisation, the Union of Child and Adolescent Workers of Bolivia, or UNASTBO, to breakfast at the government palace.

"It was really cool," said Jimmy Puro, a fourteen-year-old car mechanic, whose photo being violently manhandled by the police was on the front page of the Bolivian press the day after the demonstration.
"He said he'd listen to what we had to say."

What the children want is the right to work, but also the right to say no. And to work in safe conditions with adequate time off to attend school.

"I want to go to university, no doubt about it," said fifteen-year old child minder, Valeria Niñahuanca. "To do that I must work, because without that money I’d never get there. It’s expensive."

Minimum working age

The Bolivian works ministry estimates that about 30,000 children have had to give up school to work. They're employed as shoe-shine boys, bus conductors, security guards and sugar-cane cutters. Children sell alcohol and cigarettes.

It's a common sight on the busy, chaotic streets of La Paz to see children aged six and seven moving between the cars at traffic lights selling chewing gum and sweets.

The government wants to bring Bolivian child labour law into line with international norms and raise minimum working age to 14.

UNASTBO representatives met several times with the head of the Legislative Assembly, Gabriela Montaño, to discuss their demands and a new code to protect child workers.

Opposition deputy, Elizabeth Reyes, said: "A child alone on the street, cleaning shoes or selling sweets, is easy prey to a whole host of violations, from the sexual to the economic. But Bolivia doesn’t have the resources or the institutions to control these actions, so we should simply not allow child labour."

Rodrigo Medrano started work when he was eight. He's done a number of different jobs but now sells sweets and chewing gum on the street outside clubs and bars on weekend evenings. His right cheek was covered with medical padding. "A work accident," he told me, without elaborating.

"There is discrimination, sometimes from the authorities. The police come and ask what I’m doing out at night, that I should be sleeping in my house and they’ll take all my money and say that I’m a criminal."

Twelve-year-old Pedro Diaz says his dad taught him the trade. His small black wooden box is packed tight with his tools of the trade, his brushes and polish. His hands are black, so deeply engrained with polish that you can't imagine it ever being cleaned off.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Thousands have moved from the barren mountains to pack the cities, most notably to the huge spread of El Alto.

This is the indigenous stronghold of President Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous leader who came to power in 2006 promising a greater voice for the indigenous, rural poor and women.

Now Bolivian children are speaking up too. No-one recognises better than they do the reality of their plight.

"Thanks to their work, thanks to their efforts, even though they continue to both work and study – they’ve managed to escape from their poverty," said Valeria.

Some of these children at least have found their voice and can be shockingly poignant in their understanding of their plight.

Rodrigo said: "Human rights declarations say that every human being should have the right to dignified work. A ten or twelve year old child is also a human being. That makes you think."