On Thursday, Bolivia became the first country in the world to legalize work by children as young as 10 years old, a reality some lawmakers in the country say the country is forced to face.
Under the new ordinance, children in the South American country are now permitted to work at the age of 10 as long as they are self-employed, remain in school, and are under parental supervision. The law also lowers the legal age to work under contract to 12, two years younger than Bolivia’s previous legal working age which the UN’s International Labor Organization designates as the absolute minimum age children should be allowed to work.
In lieu of President Evo Marales, Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia signed the law the country’s Congress passed earlier this year saying, “It would have been easier to pass a law in line with international conventions, but it would not be enforced because Bolivia’s reality has other needs and characteristics.”
According to UNICEF, more than 500,000 children are already working in Bolivia, many helping bring in necessary income for families scrapping by at an average of $0.60 per day in country’s rural areas as of 2011. That same year, almost a quarter of Bolivia’s 10.5 million citizens were living in extreme poverty. According to the Associated Press, a 2008 study revealed that 9 in 10 children between the ages of 5–17 were working in some of the country’s most unsafe jobs including sugar cane harvesting and underground mining. The bill’s sponsors acknowledge this reality, but say the lowered restrictions could help eradicate extreme poverty in their country.
“Child labor already exists in Bolivia and it’s difficult to fight it,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Adolfo Mendoza. “Rather than persecute it, we want to protect the rights and guarantee the labor security of children.”
According to the Human Rights Watch, people who begin work at young ages are much less likely to get an education which actually translates to higher levels of poverty in adulthood. The Bolivian government does give families a $28 per year subsidy for each child they send to school, but despite the economic incentive children in rural areas only average around 4.2 years of school, and 1 in 7 children in Bolivia do not complete primary school.
“Bolivia’s move is out of step with the rest of the world,” said Jo Becker, the children’s rights advocacy director at HRW, in a statement. “Child labor may be seen as a short-term solution to economic hardship, but is actually a cause of poverty.”
Bolivia still remains one of the poorest countries in South America, but last year its economy grew an estimated 6.5 percent, one of the biggest growths seen in the region. Still President Marales and Bolivian’s legislature found poverty in their country so concerning it warranted legalizing work by 10-year old children an economic necessity.