Bolivia has passed a law making it legal for children as young as 10 to work as long as they meet certain other requirements, including attending school.
Bolivia’s Congress approved the bill earlier this month, and Vice President Alvaro Garcia signed it on Thursday in place of President Evo Morales, who was traveling in Brazil.
While other countries across the world are working to eliminate child labor, Boliva has taken the opposite approach. Rather than encouraging child exploitation, the law’s supporters argue, the legislation will actually help protect children, many of whom are already working because their families live in extreme poverty and have no other choice. They say the bill actually offers safeguards for working children .
“Child labor already exists in Bolivia and it’s difficult to fight it. Rather than persecute it, we want to protect the rights and guarantee the labor security of children,” said Sen. Adolfo Mendoza, one of the bill’s sponsors.
Under the legislation, 10-year-olds will be able to work as long as they are under parental supervision and also attend school. It sets 12 as the minimum age for a child to work under contract, with the provision that the child continue attending school.
The Bolivian government currently offers some incentives to encourage parents to keep their children in school, including an annual per-child subsidy of $28 for families whose children attend school. But for many poor families, this is not enough to make up for the income a working child could earn.
According to Carmen Moreno, an International Labor Organization official working to reduce child labor, Bolivia’s law contravenes a U.N. convention. Bolivia is one of the 166 countries that have ratified ILO Convention No. 138, which sets the minimum work age at 15, with some developing countries allowed to lower the minimum age to 14.
The Bolivia legislation also runs counter to other laws in the region. In Mexico, the minimum work age is 15, and Chile’s is 16, Moreno said.
The ILO says overall global child labor has declined by one third since 2000. In Latin America, the number of working children fell from 14.1 to 12.5 million from 2008 to 2012.
A 2008 ILO study done in conjunction with the Bolivian government found about 850,000 children under age 18 were working in Bolivia, many of them in dangerous sectors like sugar cane harvesting and mining. More recent statistics estimate the total is closer to 1 million children, which would account for about 15 percent of the country’s total workforce. Many of those children do not attend school — an issue the law’s proponents say this new legislation will help correct.
However, many experts see the bill as a step in the wrong direction.
“Child labor perpetuates the cycle of poverty,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Poor families often send their children to work out of desperation, but these children miss out on schooling and are more likely to end up in a lifetime of low-wage work. The Bolivian government should invest in policies and programs to end child labor, not support it.”
Additional reporting by Associated Press