In Latin America, Looking at the Positive Side of Child Labor

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Noah Friedman-Rudovsky

An 11-year-old boy chops sugarcane stalks in a Bolivian village on May 30, 2011. Bolivia, South America's poorest nation, has the highest rate of child labor on the continent

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The groups press for policy change as well. Instead of eradicating child labor, "why don't they think about eradicating the poverty" that breeds it? asks Gutiérrez, echoing a common youth-union refrain. They do agree on the need for some anti-child-labor laws, like banning work unsafe for kids, like mining, or jobs deemed exploitative or that keep youths from school. (UNATSBO, in fact, recently helped block a proposed constitutional ban on all child work and got it replaced instead with a prohibition on forced and exploitative labor.) But Alejandro Cussiánovich, who heads IFEJANT, a Lima-based child-advocacy group, and is a foremost expert on the child workers' rights movement, argues that putting child soldiers in the same basket with a 10-year-old who shines shoes a few afternoons a week — as the ILO agenda does — muddles the discussion.

The line between work that is acceptable for children and what is not is the crux of the debate. Kevin Beque, 11, started selling clothes in El Alto's outdoor market on Sundays when he was 7. "My mom didn't want me to work, but I insisted," says Beque, largely because he'd too often overheard his parents discuss financial woes. The ILO considers him part of Latin America's 5.1 million at-risk child workers because he's under 14 — but Beque says he wonders what the difference is between him and the American kids with paper routes he often sees in Hollywood movies.

Chipani works long shifts but says he has no boss to harangue him and takes days off to complete his night-school homework when he needs to. The Bolivian government deems working on public transport one of the country's 23 "inherently dangerous" jobs for 15- to 18-year-olds; but Chipani says his only injuries have been jamming his fingers in the sliding door (twice) and once slipping on a wet sidewalk and scraping his head. "I've been way more hurt playing soccer," he says.

Traditional child-labor opponents say they appreciate the kids' efforts but insist the slope is too slippery. "Our goal is to protect the right of children to be children" says María Elena Reyes, the ILO's child-labor-eradication coordinator in Bolivia. Others fear that cheerleading for child labor could backfire by making corporations and even human traffickers more child-predatory, putting the past two decades' advances at risk.

Still, the kids are ever ready with rebuttals. At one recent UNATSBO meeting, they eagerly rattled off work-experience benefits, such as a chance to improve math skills, learn new languages, appreciate responsibility and treat others with respect. "Working is dignified, and we are only doing our best in difficult situations," says Mamani, who also argues: "We're only able to stay in school because our wages cover our supplies." And politicos are starting to listen. "I believe we can protect these [child] workers while working toward a future in which children don't have to work," says Bolivian Congresswoman Rebeca Delgado. In Paraguay, President Fernando Lugo — whose first Children's Minister was a former leader of the child-workers' movement — sits down each year with child-worker-union representatives to hear their opinions on labor policy.

Even if the Bolivian government did pluck Chipani from his transit gig, "I'd just find another job," he says, tilting his head as if to say, Duh! "No one," he adds, "can tell me I can't work."

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