Sam Okyere, University of Nottingham
“You are saying we are children and so we cannot work on this farm, but there is nothing for us if we cannot work here so what should we do, I asked the man? I don’t know; just go away, he said. I cried the whole evening” (Mary 14)
Does the removal of the minimum legal working age improve children’s opportunities and livelihoods or does it place them at greater risk of exploitation and lifelong poverty? Questions about appropriate work for children are in the news following the Bolivian Parliament’s unanimous support for ‘the Boys, Girls and Adolescents’ Code’, which permits children as young as 10 to legally take up work. The legislation has attracted fierce debate; some have attacked it as a backward and misguided measure that risks confining poor children to greater exploitation and lifelong poverty, while others have hailed it as a pragmatic measure with the potential to improve the livelihoods of many poor children and their families.
These are questions that came up in my research with children working in artisanal gold mining in Ghana, in which Mary, one of the child participants, recounted how she and other girls were dismissed from their work on a cocoa farm by labour inspectors because, although they had no other means of fending for themselves, they were deemed too young for that work. This article will explore the wider background of this debate and the new Bolivian legislation’s implications for working children in that country.
The arguments that have arisen following the passage of the law in July 2014 can be firmly located within broader international debates on childhood and more specifically children’s place in the labour market. For some, childhood is a period of life to be spent at school, playing or resting within the protective confines of the home. This vision of childhood, predominantly viewed as Western, further suggests that it is a time of innocence, dependency and vulnerability which must therefore be protected from the premature incursion of the adult world’s knowledge or pursuits. Significant efforts have gone into creating this adult/child divide across various facets of social, political and economic life. Consequently, children whose lives contradict this binary, such as those brushing shoulders with adults in the labour market, are deemed to be necessarily at risk and in need of rescue and rehabilitation
This thinking is central to mainstream international discourse and Conventions on child rights, such as those targeted at imposing restrictions on the kind of work that children can take up and the extent to which they can do so. Notable among these is the ILO Minimum Age Convention, (Convention No. 138) created in 1973 to prohibit paid employment for all children under 14. The Convention proposes that all children under 14 should rather attend school. This is a laudable measure, but has nonetheless generated substantial controversy. Besides questions about the understanding of childhood it projects, critics also note that in 1973 (much like today) in many places across the developing world, especially, schools were unavailable or of such poor quality as not to be worth attending or, rather ironically, as my research has found, inaccessible if children do no work. Thus, in theory, Convention 138 confines many children to what can be described as a ‘no-school-but-no-work’ situation. It risks being even more punitive where children’s survival (and that of their families) depends on their work because there are no better immediate livelihood options available.
These two concerns reflect the situation in parts of Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in South America with an estimated 51% of its 10.5 million people living below the poverty line as defined by the World Bank. Socio-economic hardship in Bolivia is even more pronounced among the country’s indigenous peoples and in rural areas where 3 out of every 4 families live in crushing poverty. Many Bolivian children’s economic contributions are, therefore, indispensable to their own socio-economic upkeep and that of households across the country. The tendency by governments such as that of Bolivia to ratify international Conventions that stand in contradiction to the reality in their country, and which they are unable to implement has, therefore, been subjected to criticism.
It is instructive to note that some of the most vocal critics, and those who have long campaigned for the more realistic regulation of children’s work in Bolivia, are working children themselves. Arguably, the new Boys, Girls and Adolescents’ Code would not have been passed without intense lobbying by the Bolivian Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (UNATSBO) a group comprising children as young as 6 in occupations ranging from shoe-shining to mining who have insisted on their right to take up work especially because of their dire poverty and living conditions.
One of the group’s defining messages is that their members are not open to exploitation and other hazards simply because they are children. Rather, it is also because they are forced to work clandestinely and are not offered the same protection as adults who have also taken up such work in response to hardship in the country. Protection for working children and the abolition of the minimum age for self-employment are among the issues on which UNATSBO lobbied the Bolivian government and parliament most forcefully. Thus, although the law maintains 14 as the country’s minimum working age (in line with Convention 138), in what can be deemed a very significant outcome for UNATSBO and those who have long called for child labour regulation that shows greater sensitivity to the social, cultural and economic circumstances in which children and their families live, it effectively does away with a minimum age for work within the family or the community; provides for children aged 10 to be self-employed (subject to attending school, among other controls); and for those aged 12 to be hired by employers (subject to parental approval and subject to restrictions such as not being in sex work)
Concerns by Human Rights Watch and Terre des Hommes, among others, about the effect of the law on children’s lives are far from misplaced. While there are exceptions, children’s agency, physical or biological maturity and their capacity to defend themselves tend to be limited in comparison with that of adults. Any measure that creates conditions that can leave children more susceptible to exploitation and harm, as critics suggest, can therefore be deemed problematic. The most ideal or preferred scenario is for children’s needs to be met without recourse to work, as required by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The problem however is that despite ratifying the UNCRC, at the present moment poor countries like Bolivia are not in a position to meet all their obligations to children and other citizens.
And, while calls are made for such countries to endeavour to do so, questions remain about the options open to children who have turned to work in the interim and those looking to do so. I share the view that the law is not the single silver bullet to eradicate extreme poverty among Bolivian children and their families. However, if the safeguards it offers can be guaranteed, I argue that it is a more attractive prospect than a blanket ban which does not recognise the fact that millions of children under 14 across the world are still compelled to take up paid work in response to their difficult lived experiences and therefore offers no protection at all.
Sam Okyere is a lecturer in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham. His research interests are broadly linked to human rights and social justice issues from sociological and policy perspectives. He has undertaken research with children working in artisanal gold mining. This study explored the extent to which the children’s lived experiences reflected international children’s rights legislation and dominant discourses on their work.