Foto: Yvette Paz-Soldan

Bolivia The Proud Child Laborers

In the land of child labor: Even as the world is seeking to eliminate child labor, Bolivia has passed a law enabling the practice -- with the support of many of the children who work. Expedition BeyondTomorrow went to Bolivia for a closer look. A Multimedia Story from Bolivia by David Böcking (Text) and Yvette Paz-Soldan (Photos/Videos)

The Grave Business

The Day of the Dead is a good one for Guido. On Día de los Muertos, the cemetery in Potosí, Bolivia is filled with people, with entire families gathered in front of burial niches stacked one on top of the other. They have brought flowers with them and tantawawas, Bolivian bread babies that are part of the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Those who can afford it have their dearly departed serenaded by solo guitarists or by entire mariachi bands. But families on a budget turn to 13-year-old Guido, with his hoodie and his chubby cheeks.

Foto: Yvette Paz-Soldan

Guido is a grave cleaner. His current project is a burial niche on the fourth level of Pavilion 113. He climbs up a ladder and first rids the interior of the worst of the grime before polishing the pane of glass and the frame. Once he's finished, the family hands him a 10 boliviano bill, worth about 1.40 euros.

Video: The Grave Cleaners


Guido began doing the job when he was 11. "If I'm lucky, I can earn about 100 bolivianos in a day," he says. With seven children in the family and his father deceased, it is money that his mother badly needs. But Guido says he would still be here even under better circumstances. "I would always want to work," he says.

In the West, such a thing is frowned upon, but children like Guido are officially allowed to work in Bolivia. Two years ago, socialist President Evo Morales' government passed a law allowing children 10 and older to work under certain conditions, provided they are self-employed. Once they are 12, they can be hired as regular employees.

The international community was distraught. Few business practices are as unanimously rejected by industrialized nations as child labor. Even many of the world's poorest countries have officially banned children under the age of 14 from working. With the passage of Law 548, however, Bolivia became the first country in the world to buck this trend.

The debate over the law has continued until today and it raises an important question: Will the world ever agree on what constitutes "decent work opportunities?" Guaranteeing such jobs is one of the United Nations sustainable development goals, which also includes the goal to "end child labor in all its forms" by 2025.

But in Bolivia, even a number of the purported victims of child labor readily accept it. Among the most vocal advocates for lowering the working age were unions representing working children and adolescents, who are referred to by the Spanish acronym NATs. Such children's unions are particularly powerful in the mining city of Potosí and Guido also wears the logo of CONNATSOP, the local organization of child labor unions, on his red vest.

On paper, the children's unions won two years ago, but not in the real world. The truth is that their situation has threatened to deteriorate since passage of the new legislation. They are trapped in a dispute that has as much to do with ideology as it does with child welfare.

Foto: Yvette Paz-Soldan

The Local Critic

The man representing the unpopular views of the international community is himself Bolivian. Rodrigo Mogrovejo has curly black hair, a friendly temper and a delicate job. He heads the Bolivian office of the International Labor Organization (ILO), located in a posh neighborhood in southern La Paz, the country's capital. When Bolivia lowered the official working age, ILO protested loudly and has since been calling for amendments to the law. The battle against child labor has become one of the organization's most important goals, and it regularly publishes comprehensive statistics on the subject.

Those statistics show that in 2012, around 168 million children aged five to seven worked in a job that corresponded to ILO's definition of child labor. That figure represents about one-tenth of all children around the world. ILO nonetheless believes there is reason for hope: Just four years earlier, the number of child laborers was at 215 million.

And what is the situation like in Bolivia today? "We simply have no criteria for judging that," says Mogrovejo. The most recent data, collected with ILO's help, is from 2008. At the time, around 800,000 children and youth were working in Bolivia -- close to 490,000 were younger than 14 and almost 90 percent of that group were doing work considered to be particularly dangerous. New data are currently being collected by the government on its own due to the inability of the ILO and the Bolivian government to reach a deal on further cooperation.

The Bolivians defend their law by arguing that it decriminalizes underage laborers, thus protecting them from exploitation -- an argument familiar from campaigns to legalize drugs or prostitution. "That doesn't appear to me to be a good strategy for combating child labor," says Mogrovejo. He says he doubts that the NATs speak for the majority of child laborers. "They surely don't represent them," he says. But the children's unions receive financial backing, he says, some of which even comes from Europe.

Mogrovejo emphasizes that this is his personal opinion and that he can't speak for the ILO as a whole. Indeed, the organization is made up of more than just officials like him. Its highest-level committees don't just include government representatives, but also those of employer groups and labor unions. Both Bolivia's labor union association and employers' association explicitly rejected the lowering of the working age and claimed that the Bolivian government hadn't consulted them.

Morgrovejo apparently isn't the only Bolivian troubled by the law. Even so, the ILO representative appears to be pursuing a strategy of de-escalation. He says there is no doubt that some of the steps taken by the government have been sensible – like a premium paid for school attendance. He says it is still too early to judge Law 548. "Perhaps it will end up working."

Foto: Yvette Paz-Soldan

So far, though, it's not. That is clearly evident at a nearby mountain located only a few kilometers away from the Potosí cemetery. The ochre-colored rocks outside don't provide much of a hint of the treasures hidden within. Silver mining at Cerro Rico dates all the way back to the days of the Spanish conquistadors in 1545, and its riches were used for centuries to finance the monarchy back home. Indigenous forced laborers and later African slaves had to spend months at a time underground as part of a cruel shift system. It is estimated that as many as 8 million people died inside the mountain.

People still work here today, including very young laborers. One of them is Armando, a blithe, self-confident 16-year-old. Like many people his age, he dreams of a future as a professional football player, but for the time being, Armando is still a miner, just like his father Pastor.

The route the two must take to their workplace is frightening. For large stretches, the tunnels have been drilled into the rock without supports and they are so low that the miners have to hunch as they walk. Fresh air can only get inside by way of simple pipes. The most immediate dangers are tunnel collapses and delayed detonations of previously laid dynamite charges. The longer-term danger is black lung, which many miners contract early in their lives.

Video: The Boy in the Mine


Armando has worked in the mine since he was 11. "You earn the most in the mine," he says. In groups of three, they push carts filled with stone uphill and downhill until they reach the outside. Armando is paid at least 20 bolivianos for each cart load, and he can manage 20 of them on good days. He uses the money to support his seven-member family. "I buy whatever is lacking," he says.

Armando has heard that other countries have criticized Bolivia over the new law. "They don't know what life is like here," he says. He lives in a two-story brick building that can be seen from Cerro Rico. It is comprised of two rooms connected by a wooden ladder. The ground floor contains little more than two beds. At home, his father Pastor, a 42-year-old with tired, red eyes, says that he's starting to feel his lungs. And yet he still wasn't against having Armando follow in his footsteps. "You have to get used to working from childhood," he says.

But should that work take place under these kinds of conditions? Even in Bolivia, the answer is clearly "no." Law 548 explicitly lists jobs that are prohibited for children and youth - and they include mining. Article 129 also stipulates that all working relationships with children under the age of 14 must be approved by special ombudsmen for children and adolescents. A medical examination is also required.

A meeting with the coordinator of the ombudsman's office in Potosí, however, is sobering. Carlos Gómez isn't in his office at the time of the agreed-to meeting. His superior then offers another appointment for an interview with her, but she doesn't show up either. In the end, Gómez does finally turn up – a nervous-looking man in a leather jacket.

Gómez reports that a few underage workers have been tracked down recently, particularly in Chinese restaurants. Of the authorizations planned under the law, he says, only three were issued during the past trimester, and this in a city of around 200,000 residents.

When asked if medical examinations had taken place, Gómez seemed unaware of this provision. After being shown the corresponding text in the law, he assured that examinations would take place in the future. Gómez also offered an explanation for his knowledge gap, saying that he has only been on the job for two months.

The protection promised in the law has so far been little more than a pledge, and not just in Potosí. Marco Antonia Gira used to be an ombudsman in La Paz. Today, the attorney says that the ombudsman's offices have three major problems: "A lack of continuity among personnel, political interference and a dearth of resources."

Foto: Yvette Paz-Soldan

Child Laborers In Power

Outside, in the peach-colored corridor, posters warn against machismo and violence against women. Inside Ana Bazán's office, photos of children are taped to a scuffed filing cabinet, chair upholstery has been repaired with tape and desks are overflowing with paper. Bazán, who is responsible for children's rights at the government's Under Secretary for Equal Opportunities, is also lacking resources, a situation that has been exacerbated since the passage of Law 548.

"One problem we have is that not all municipal governments have ombudsman's offices," Bazán concedes. She says that it is particularly difficult to find qualified staff in remote parts of the country. Bazán says the new figures on the number of child laborers were supposed to have been collected by the end of 2015, but it costs $1.5 million to conduct the poll. "There was no money," she explains.

Although its economy has been driven for years by booming raw materials exports, Bolivia remains one of South America's poorest countries. This has left the government dependent on support. So far, however, Bazán says the country has been unable to secure financial assistance from abroad to pay for the poll and for a program aimed at strengthening a select number of ombudsman's offices. They also received a rejection notice from Germany in 2015. Bolivia is now funding the survey on its own.

Has the passage of Law 548 hindered Bolivia's access to foreign aid? When asked about the issue, officials at Germany's Economic Cooperation and Development Ministry say the German government still supports projects relating to child labor even in the wake of Bolivia's decision to lower the working age. But Bolivia's dispute with ILO has made it trickier to provide support for such projects.

The Most Important Sections of Law 548

I. Children and adolescents have the right to be protected by the state at all levels, by their families and by society, especially against economic exploitation and the execution of any occupation or work that can hinder their education, present a danger, pose hazards to their health or be detrimental to their dignity and integral development.


During a visit to the children's and adolescent's labor union Taypinats in La Paz, those in charge say that the project would be shut down at the end of 2016 because funding from the Swiss chapter of the Catholic charity Caritas had run out. Officials at Caritas say that child labor didn't play a role in the decision because child workers "were never the thematic focus of our work in Bolivia." However, no new funding is in sight for the group. "Most nongovernment organizations are striving to eliminate child labor," say the people responsible for the project. Some potential funding is being administered by the Labor Ministry which, despite the dispute, continues working together with ILO.

Ministry employee Bazán does show a certain amount of latent concern about the finances. But on this issue, she remains firm. "Ultimately, the ILO is lagging behind," she says.

Part of the self-confidence among government officials stems from their conviction that they are, for the first time, representing the interests of all Bolivians. Like his leftist counterparts in Venezuela and Ecuador, Evo Morales drafted a new constitution. In addition to the country's many different indigenous groups, children also participated in the process. Since then, Bolivia is now officially known as the "Plurinational State of Bolivia," and its diversity is officially symbolized in the Wiphala rainbow flag.

At the end of the conversation, Bazán says the reporter should meet her boss, Raúl Escalante, who has just finished a meeting. He wears a cardigan over his shirt and has tucked some coca leaves into his cheek. His appearance is a bit reminiscent of President Morales, a former coca farmer and also a fan of sweaters. And that's not the only thing the two have in common.

One cannot accuse Morales of a lack of experience when it comes to child labor. The president himself began working at a young age to help support his family, as did Escalante. "I come from a family of truck drivers," he explains, adding that he began helping his father at the age of seven. At 12, he began driving with a provisional driver's license for minors. "That was formative for me," he says. Escalante would go on to study law and become a lawyer.

Perhaps it's inevitable that people with such résumés will conclude that foreigners have no clue about Bolivia's reality. It's a view shared by some foreign researchers. A group of around 75 academics, including Berlin education professor and children's rights expert Manfred Liebel at the city's Free University, is calling for the ILO to change course on child labor.

Foto: Yvette Paz-Soldan

One of the domestic minds behind Law 548 is Jorge Domic, a psychologist and the founder of a children's charity organization in La Paz. "Children have obligations in this country," says the 68-year-old. He says these obligations are an important part of social relations, particularly in indigenous cultures. The new law explicitly mentions that work done by children within their families should be "culturally valued and accepted." Such work, he says, serves their personal development and "vivir bien," a concept of the good life with its roots in indigenous ideas.

Domic is critical of the fact that his fellow psychologists in the West have hardly looked into the importance of work in childhood development. He says he has managed to find only a single book on the subject: "The Soul of the Proletarian Child," published in 1925 by Otto Rühle of Germany, a Social Democrat who later became a communist.

Europeans and the Americans, though, have plenty of material to work with, given that child labor was long also the norm in the West -- in factories as in mining. Its elimination was not strictly the product of humanitarian concerns. In Germany, the Prussian state was far more concerned that putting young people to work too early might lead to a shortage of healthy young men available for military conscription. Schooling was promoted because children were taught loyalty to the state. Furthermore, adults increasingly protested against the cheaper competition – a reflex that critics suspect partly explains the unions' positions within ILO today.

But the Western position toward child labor has clearly changed since then. Is such a shift possible in Bolivia too?

Sure, says Domic. "Culture isn't static." But you have to eliminate poverty before you can get rid of child labor, he says, adding that at the growth rates currently seen in Bolivia, it will take another 80 years. "We will still be talking about child labor in 80 years!"

Foto: Yvette Paz-Soldan

The Fight Continues

On a cool Saturday night, members of the children's union have gathered at their headquarters in Potosí. The cemetery workers are present, represented by their president Jonathan, a buddy of Guido's. There are also bread sellers, newspaper deliverers and market workers. Around 20 children have gathered. The atmosphere is cheerful and Paola must occasionally restore order. "You're the base," she calls out, or, simply, "Chicoooos!"

Paola, a 17-year-old delegate at the national association UNATSBO, is leading the discussion. The question is whether they should send a delegation to La Paz for talks with the trade union federation and other institutions, which they agree to do.

The children's trade unionists actually do have a number of reasons for feeling a sense of resignation. "The law has been written, but no one is applying it," says Paola. "We will continue to fight because that's what we have always done."

The NATs movement has already been around for 40 years. It began when children working in Peru joined a strike together with adults. Children's unions exist today in many Latin American countries, as well as in Africa and Asia. There have been three global meetings, including one event held in Berlin.

Adults have also helped NATs become as big as it is. Foreign NGOs provide them with support as do social workers in their home countries. Luz Rivera, a vigorous and sincere 48-year-old, has spent years supervising the children's union of Potosí. On this particular evening, she has to jump in several times to help moderate. Rivera says ILO has an "very romantic approach" when it comes to ending child labor. But she also says that she doesn't consider children who spend all their time playing and learning to be the "ideal for Bolivians."

Video: "They Work and They Will Not Stop Doing So"


The children's unions may not be entirely free of adult ideologies. Still, the children who are organizing in Potosí and elsewhere are doubtlessly doing so at their own initiative. They may lack knowledge and experience, but their situation forces them to grow up faster than their peers in the West.

On the margins of the gathering in Potosí, three members of the children's union begin asking the reporter questions about the German school system. They have specific questions: What types of schools are there, what subjects are taught and what are the job prospects? All report that they themselves also attend school in addition to working – just as all the children interviewed for this story said. Some go in the morning, some in the afternoon. Both are possible in Bolivia.

These children don't see their current work as their final station in life. They're seeking the same kind of breakthrough achieved by the former child laborers currently in the Bolivian government. That's no small thing in a country in which large parts of the population have so far been completely cut off from political life and social advancement.

Union leader Paola is an earnest young woman. She began selling drinks at the age of 12 and works today as a cleaner. "Each person is born into his or her reality," she says soberly. To members of the children's unions, ILO must seem as though it hasn't accepted their reality. In addition to the lack of movement on the part of the government, that has been their second major disappointment.

So, what constitutes decent work?

Bolivia and the international community won't likely come to an agreement on that question any time soon. The government might take steps to finally start better monitoring its ban on jobs for minors that are dangerous or inhumane. That would be in line with ILO, whose chief priority is to get rid of the "worst forms of child labor." But one basic point of contention will persist: The question of whether child labor is a fundamental abuse that can be overcome or whether it is something that is simply a part of certain cultures.

For many child laborers, the entire debate is meaningless. The world in which they live is not one of sustainable development goals. They want people to listen to the concerns they have about life today, just as other workers do. For some time now, NATs representatives have been seeking a say at ILO conferences, but those efforts have so far all been in vain.

In Germany, the aid organizations Terre des Hommes Deutschland and Kindernothilfe (KNH), both of which support projects in Potosí focusing on child labor, are in the midst of a fresh attempt right now. Using the motto "Time to Talk," they are collecting opinions around the world from child laborers. They plan to present their findings in 2017 at the next global conference on child labor in Argentina.

Do they have any chance of success? We called José Ramirez, a Latin America expert at ILO in Geneva, to find out. Like his Bolivian colleague Mogrovejo, he's an affable man. But when asked about the desire of the children's unions to have a say, Ramirez says it's a bit like getting invited to a vegetarian party and then "talking about the advantages of eating meat."

It sounds as though the child laborers still have a lot of persuading to do. On the other hand, even vegetarians and meat-eaters have managed to have civilized conversations in the past.


Author: David Böcking

Translation: Daryl Lindsey, Charles Hawley

Photos and videos: Yvette Paz-Soldan

Video editing: Marco Kasang

Editor: Yasmin El-Sharif

Fakt-checking: Almut Cieschinger und Claudia Niesen

Photo editor: Nasser Manouchehri

Copyediting: Sebastian Hofer und Dörte Karsten

Programming and information graphics: Frank Kalinkowski, Chris Kurt und Philipp Seibt

Coordination: Philipp Seibt

This report is part of the Expedition #BeyondTomorrow project.