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Children’s rights

Bolivia bows to international pressure

by Manfred Liebel

In depth

Bolivian working children and youths rally for their rights in 2007.

Bolivian working children and youths rally for their rights in 2007.

A pioneering Child and Adolescent Code had been in effect in Bolivia since 2014. The code guaranteed the rights of working children and promised them better protection. Now, to the detriment of working children it has been changed in response to pressure from the International Labour Organization and the United States government. Bolivian President Evo Morales, who himself worked as a child and had previously pledged solidarity with working children, has forsaken their cause by rubber-stamping the code’s revision.

Bolivia’s Child and Adolescent Code promised a new approach to child labour. It was no longer simply a ban, but rather contained provisions to improve protections for children who wanted to work or were forced to out of social necessity. It also made it possible for them to work with dignity. In the spirit of the holistic approach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, other rights, like the right to education, health and re­creation, were upheld as well. The position of children in society was to be improved through child protection commissions and children’s and adolescents’ committees, which were to be organised by the children themselves. The code was also pioneering given the fact that, despite facing strong opposition, it was drafted with the active participation of working children. Finally, it implemented standards that are enshrined in the Bolivian constitution.

The code sparked an international controversy. While it was enthusiastically celebrated by working children in Bolivia and other countries and was greeted as ground-breaking by many children’s-rights NGOs, the International Labour Organization (ILO) protested that it infringed ILO conventions on child labour. In June 2015, the ILO demanded that the code should be changed. The Bolivian government rejected its call by referring to cultural traditions and the country’s own constitution. That document expressly forbids “every form of violence against children, in the family or in society”, but does not issue a blanket ban on child labour. “Forced labour and exploitation of children” are not permitted. How­ever, the document states that “the activities that children perform in their families and social environments promote their development as citizens; they have an educational function”.

The paragraphs of the Child and Adolescent Code that addressed children’s work were based on these constitutional provisions. However, they represented a compromise between the articulated interests, practical needs and everyday realities of working children on the one hand and the requirements of international organisations, financial donors, the Bolivian trade-union federation and the Bolivian employer association on the other. In order to satisfy the agreements that previous governments had made with the ILO, the minimum age at which children could perform paying work was generally set at 14, and work permits for younger children (starting at age 10 or 12, depending on the type of work) were treated as an exception. Such permits could only be obtained through complicated bureaucratic procedures. Applicants had to demonstrate that the rights of the child were being upheld, the parents had provided their consent and the child was working of his or her own free will.

Now, Bolivia’s Parliament and Senate have made fundamental changes to the code in accordance with ILO guidelines without public discussion and without consulting the working children, organisations and local-government agencies that campaigned for the law’s enactment. On 20 December 2018, President Morales signed the amendment. All legal protections for working children under the age of 14 were removed, which amounts to a general ban. The code’s provisions and guarantees relating to labour law are now limited to adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18. The only remaining mention of younger children is an exhortation to uphold compulsory education and the ban on child labour. The code also states that government agencies can be expected to show greater sensitivity for their need for protection.

This “sensitivity” consists in spreading slogans against child labour under the government’s official hashtag “#YoPorLaNiñez” (#ImForChildhood) and the motto “protection against violence”. These efforts are being sponsored by UNICEF and the state-run company Teleférica, which operates a cable car in the capital of La Paz. On the cars and at other locations in the city, children’s work is equated with neglect and sexual violence in statements like: “the right to protection from neglect and child labour” or “against sexual violence and child labour”.

In a speech on 1 December, the vice president of Bolivia, Álvaro García Linera, justified the upcoming revision of the code by saying that the US had threatened to remove Bolivia from the list of countries that enjoy advantageous customs tariffs on exports to the US. Three years ago, some deputies of the European Parliament made a similar threat with regard to the EU, but did not carry through. Following an invitation from other deputies, delegates from the Latin American movement of working children (MOLACNATS) and the Bolivian union of working children (UNATSBO) travelled to Brussels to defend the code. Their arguments played no role in the recent resolution by Bolivian legislators, however. Prior to taking their decision they made no mention of the situation of working children in Bolivia and the history of the code. The formal justification of the change was that the Bolivian constitutional court had declared that the articles in question were incompatible with an ILO convention on child labour.

The previous version of the code was not without its flaws, and the central government worked only half-heartedly to enact it. The government never provided the necessary means to implement the protection mechanisms. In order to allow children and adolescents to work while preserving their rights and guaranteeing their protection and dignity, the code put bureaucratic requirements into place that were difficult to fulfil in practice. That is why, at a conference of the municipal commissioners for children’s rights in November 2018, participants called for the elimination of the complex process to obtain work permits for children and adolescents. In the years since the rule had been in effect, permits had been granted only in rare cases. Furthermore, the commissioners for children’s rights lacked the time to ensure that children were truly being protected. For adolescents, the code frequently had the effect that companies preferred to hire adults rather than jump over bureaucratic hurdles. As a result, the only job options young people had left were in the legally unprotected informal sector.

Nevertheless, numerous organisations and individuals in certain provinces worked to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles and involved the affected children and adolescents in the code’s implementation. They were and still are convinced that the code was better than any legal regulations that had come before. It is disconcerting that the many experiences that have been gained over the past four years were neither evaluated nor taken into consideration during the latest resolution. And the fact that working children were not even consulted goes against the spirit of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Bolivian constitution and the Child and Adolescent Code itself.

The sudden and surprising change to the code ultimately shows that the old power structures have now been resurrected in Bolivia as well, and that the perspectives and rights of working children and of the commissioners for children’s rights are being ignored. The Ministry of Labour has gone so far as to charge the latter, which are already overworked, with carrying out the counterproductive permit procedure for adolescents.

The constitution’s promises of a “good life” and respect for indigenous traditions have largely evaporated. The UNATSBO succinctly summed up the new regulation: despite its anti-imperialist rhetoric, the government of Bolivia has now bowed to the “empire” as well.

With the change to the code, working children under the age of 14 and municipal commissioners for children’s rights are once again left to tackle the real problems on their own: exploitation, violence, impediments to child development and discrimination against working children.


Manfred Liebel is an emeritus professor of sociology at the Technical University of Berlin and a sponsor of the Master of Arts programme “Childhood Studies and Children’s Rights” at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam.
[email protected]

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