“I’d gone to Bolivia because some NGOs and activists there have been trying—seemingly against all good sense—to lower the legal working age from 14 to six years old. And this was not the doing of mine owners or far-right politicians seeking cheap labor like one might expect. Instead the idea has been floated by a group of young people ages eight to 18 called the Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (UNATSBO)—something like a pee-wee version of the AFL-CIO—who have proposed a law that aims to allow young children to legally work. Bolivia’s congress is slated to vote on a version of the law as soon as this month.

“Why would an organization dedicated to fighting for the rights of young workers want to lower the legal working age? Current regulations state that youth can begin work no younger than 14, but these laws are rarely followed. Bolivia is a nation of fewer than 11 million people. This includes approximately 850,000 children who work full-time, nearly half of whom are under 14.

“‘They work in secrecy,’ Alfredo, a 16-year-old who since the age of eight has worked as a bricklayer, construction worker, and currently as a street clown, told me when I met him at a cafe in El Alto, the teeming slum city just outside of La Paz, Bolivia’s capital. Outside in the street, children known as voceadores—’barkers’—leaned from buses and called out their respective destinations in the hopes of earning a few coins from sympathetic or illiterate passengers unable to read the signs. ‘And that secrecy,’ he continued, ‘pushes these kids into the shadows, as if they were criminals.’”

Wes Enzinna, in Vice magazine, on child laborers working inside the mines in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America. Read more from Vice in the Longreads Archive.


Photo: scropy, Flickr

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