BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A new law in Bolivia lowering the legal working age from 14 to 10 years old could drive poverty and school drop-out rates and breaches international conventions on child labour, says UNICEF.
The law, which came into effect earlier this month, allows 10-year-olds to work as long as they attend school, are under parental supervision and are self-employed.
Two exceptions in the law caused particular concern, said Joost Kooijmans, UNICEF’s senior advisor on child labour.
“The exception for children to work at 10 years for self-employment is not possible under ILO (International Labour Organization) conventions as such. The other exception that allows children to work at 12 years with parental consent also does not live up with Bolivia’s obligations under the convention,” Kooijmans told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from New York.
The ILO, which has a commission studying the new legislation, says the minimum age for work should not be below 15 - the age children normally complete compulsory schooling. But the ILO, a U.N. agency, allows a minimum working age of 14 for developing countries.
CHILD LABOUR RIFE
Child labour in Bolivia is ubiquitous - from children lugging boxes in food markets, cleaning shoes and herding sheep and llamas, to more dangerous work in silver and tin mines.
There are more than 500,000 children working in Bolivia, and nearly 60 percent are under 14, according to UNICEF.
“Child labour is both a cause and consequence of poverty and the loss of a country’s human capital, and in many occasions, it is an obstacle for children to get an education or leads to school desertion among boys and girls,” UNICEF said in a statement this week in response to Bolivia’s new law.
BUILDING “SOCIAL CONSCIENCE”
Many in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, child labour see as a lifeline for families struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table.
Bolivian President Evo Morales has defended child labour in the past.
“When one works from a young age, one has a greater social conscience,” Morales, the country’s first indigenous leader, told reporters last year.
Morales himself worked as a child, as a brick maker, a helper in a bakery and a sugarcane cutter alongside his father.
Supporters of the law argue that lowering the minimum working age reflects an undeniable reality in Bolivia that poor families have no other choice than for their children to work to supplement family incomes. Instead of punishing child workers, the law offers working children more rights and protection from being exploited, they say.
The law is also backed by the Bolivian Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (Unatsbo), which has said placing restrictions on what age children can work goes against their rights and their need to help their families survive day to day.
In the months before the law was passed, teenage union members took to the streets in the Bolivian capital, La Paz, to demonstrate in favour of the bill and met with President Morales and lawmakers to lobby for the bill to get passed.
International and local rights groups, along with some local media, say the law is a step backwards for children’s rights in the country.
“Despite the fact that this new law pleases the boys, girls and adolescents of the workers organisation in the country... it continues to be inadmissible that while there are adults who are unemployed, children can be seen being made to work,” said a recent opinion piece in Bolivia’s La Razon newspaper.
(Editing by Alisa Tang: firstname.lastname@example.org)