Shoeshine boy at work during the carnival in Oruro, Bolivia. Linn Bergbrant/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.
Last month, Evo Morales won a landslide victory in the Bolivian general election. Though a disaster for the free marketeers on the right, his victory has been hailed as a triumph for equality and social justice by progressives on the left. Yet on one matter, both left and right are united: in unequivocal condemnation of Morales’ new child labour law.
The ‘Code for Children and Adolescents’ overturns decades of child labour legislation. Globally, as per the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Minimum Age Conventions, 14 is the youngest that children can be when they begin light work. In Bolivia, that age has now been lowered to 10 if the children are self-employed and attending school. Children may begin contract work – meaning they may be employed by someone else – at 12, as long as they possess parental authorization and continue their education. The law also contains strong stipulations pertaining to the protection of child workers, and serious sanctions for employers who fail to respect them.
Criticism of the law has been vociferous. Conservative politicians in Latin America have derided it as dishonourable. UNICEF and the ILO have led an international chorus against it. Human Rights Watch has been scathing, with its chief child rights advocate claiming the new rules are “counter-productive” and may “perpetuate poverty”. Aidan McQuade, Director of Anti-Slavery International, wrote in The Guardian that it “shames us all” and represents the “abandonment of a child's right to a childhood”.
This criticism, while hardly surprising, is misguided in many respects. There are a number of reasons why the law represents a very progressive step in the right direction.
The first is that it constitutes a clear rejection of the dominant ‘abolitionist’ approach to child labour in favour of a more nuanced, and ultimately more effective, regulatory strategy. The abolitionist approach seeks an immediate, blanket removal of all children from what the ILO calls the most ‘hazardous’ occupations and an immediate removal of any child under 14 from any occupation whatsoever. The problem with this approach, however, is that its history is absolutely littered with examples of it having made children’s lives significantly worse. This happens because all to often it is implemented in an entirely a-political fashion. Well-meaning outsiders come along promising to rescue poor children from exploitation, not by changing the political-economic conditions that allow for (and indeed create) that exploitation, but simply by removing them from it. The unfortunate result of these efforts is to promptly return those children to precisely the penury that drove them to work in the first place. This frequently pushes them into the illegal economy, where they end up facing even worse working conditions.
The alternative to this quixotic dogmatism is exactly what Bolivia’s new child labour law seeks to achieve. It begins from the twin premises that children work because they are poor and that, until their poverty has been overcome, they will be better served by having their work brought out of the shadows. This involves having it legalised, having it regulated, and having the authorities ensure that child workers receive the same protections and the same wages as their adult counterparts.
The same, pragmatic logic is also found in campaigns to legalise sex work. As it is with legalised prostitution, evidence from other contexts in which a regulatory approach has been taken to child labour clearly suggests that this is by far the best way to advance children’s interests until enough political will exists for a massive, poverty-eradicating redistribution of resources. It is thus likely that this law will benefit Bolivia’s working children.
And as a precedent, this law has the potential to benefit working children everywhere. It offers a tangible, real world example of an effective alternative to the hegemony of abolitionist thinking. Nowhere else has a country so flatly rejected abolitionist inflexibility. Nowhere else has a law been passed that so roundly reveals the hypocrisy of abolitionist moralising. To condemn and illegalise child work whilst doing nothing about the structures underpinning that work is, at the end of the day, not about helping working children. It assuages the guilt of the interventionists whose privilege is made manifest to them by the uncomfortable sight of a child at labour. Abolitionist posturing is the worst kind of liberal sensibility, and Bolivia’s child labour law reveals it for what it is, whilst at the same time shining a light on another way forward.
The third reason why this law is such an advance is that it both recognises children’s agency and gives them voice in determining what is in their best interests. Contrary to what may be assumed, children have themselves vigorously campaigned for this new law. The pioneering Bolivian Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (UNATSBO), which represents tens of thousands of under-18s all over the country, has argued that regulation and labour protection are more useful for the poor and the young than wholesale bans. Historically, those seeking to help children have done so without consulting them or taking their views into account. Beyond this being a morally questionable contradiction, speaking for children and adolescents whilst ignoring what they themselves have to say, has been highly ineffectual. Bolivia’s recognition of their right to be heard is thus of real importance.
It is likely that, as the Bolivian state takes the lead in offering greater respect to its young workers, Bolivian society will follow suit. Significant bodies of research demonstrate that perceptions of a person’s status are fundamental to how we treat that person. It is for precisely this reason that many liberal democracies illegalise hate speech. By declaring that young people are capable not only of working and organising, but of making a valuable and necessary contribution to their families and their society, Evo Morales is demanding that Bolivian society do likewise. It must respect these young workers as people, and treat them accordingly.
I neither condone the exploitation of children nor see all child work as unproblematic. But I want readers to see that in our unjust, unequal and unfair world, regulating child work is better for working children than the counter-productive sticky plaster of abolition. Instead of condemning Morales as regressive, abolitionists and their allies would do better to marshal their forces against the wealth inequalities that necessitate child work in the first place.