New scrutiny over Bolivian child labor after U.S. pledges aid cuts

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bolivia’s record on child labor and human trafficking has come under renewed scrutiny after the United States said it would cut aid to the country last week over concerns it was not doing enough to combat them.

From silver mines to ranches to chestnut fields, child labor is often seen as normal in Bolivian society, and made worse by the shortage of workplace of inspectors, campaigners said.

In July, the United States downgraded Bolivia to “Tier 3” - the lowest grade - in its annual Trafficking in Persons report.

The designation means Bolivia is considered to be failing to comply with the minimum standards to eliminate trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. The expected cut is to “non-humanitarian, non-trade-related assistance.”

Forced child labor and dangerous working conditions for children are considered trafficking by the report.

In response, Bolivia has defended its record, saying significant progress had been made on reducing the number of child laborers The government said it would send information to the United States detailing its efforts to tackle the problem.

“We believe that these reports are unfair to Bolivia because the fight against human trafficking and the reduction of child labor are two major tasks that Bolivia, regardless of reports, and pressure, has taken on as being essential,” Alvaro Garcia Linera, Bolivia’s vice-president, said in a statement last week.

He also announced that in the coming weeks lawmakers will amend existing child labor laws to reflect a 2017 court ruling invalidating a law that allowed children as young as 10 to work.

“This sends a clear signal that the general minimum age for employment or work is 14,” Jose Maria Ramirez, senior program and operations officer at the International Labour Organization (ILO), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But with just a few inspectors in Bolivia tasked with specifically monitoring child labor, campaigners say enforcing the law and ensuring children are in school is a challenge.

“Six people (inspectors) in the entire country is nothing ... that’s a problem in other countries as well,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

“The laws may look good on paper but if they don’t have enough labor law inspectors or if they don’t have meaningful penalties for employers that violate the laws then the impact is much less than it should be.”

According to a 2008 government survey, nearly one in every three children in Bolivia were found to be carrying out work that was hazardous or posed a health risk.

Yet for many in Bolivia, child labor is often seen as normal and a lifeline for families struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table.

“The social acceptance of children and adolescents working, including in dangerous and prohibited work, is one of the determining factors that maintains child labor in Bolivia,” said Virginia Perez, head of child protection in Bolivia for the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF).

“The gradual entry of children into work is usually done from within the family.”

Bolivia is listed as one of 18 countries the U.S. government has pledged to withhold aid from over a lack of progress on human trafficking, including Venezuela, Iran, and China.

Globally, while child labor rates have declined since 2000, the ILO estimates that 152 million children - almost one in 10 of all children worldwide - work, many in agriculture.