In July 2014 Bolivia has become the first nation worldwide to legalize child labor from age 10. The South American country passed a law that lowers the child labor age restriction from 14 to 10 years and allows children to carry out work on certain conditions. The new policy is seen by some as an attempt to combat the high level of poverty in the country. But is this the right approach to tackle the problem? Could the legalization of child labor really help families to overcome poverty? Before discussing possible consequences of the new law on child labor let us take a look on the current situation of the country:
Bolivia is considered to be the poorest nation in the South America. About 45% of its population lives below the national poverty line (most recent data from 2011). As a consequence, a lot of children are forced to contribute to their families’ income by taking up employment. A study by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2008 showed that around 850.000 children work in Bolivia, a number that stands for about 25% of all kids in the country. While the children were working illegally before, Bolivia’s new law allows child labor from the age of 10 under certain circumstances. Children between the age of 10 and 12 are allowed to work in self-employment if they have the permission from their parents and are enrolled in school. Furthermore, the law sets 12 as a minimum age for children to work under contract – again, under the condition that they continue to attend school. For contracted work, the law imposes the same minimal wage for children as for adults.
While the Government of Bolivia sees the necessity for the law in assuring child’s labor security, it is very difficult to justify it when looking at its possible implications for the children and its families. I found immediately plenty of arguments against the law from a humanitarian point of view (we should secure that children can enjoy a happy and unburdened childhood as it is very essential for safe and healthy human development) but given the context of our blog, I would like to share some thoughts that are related to the economic side of legalizing child labor in Bolivia.
Looking at families that suffer from household income poverty we can conduct that the new child labor law could shift the family to a higher income level. Studies have shown that household income poverty results in child labor activities that can directly generate income. Since the new law guarantees a minimum wage also for children, we can assume that parents will consider sending their children to work in order to alleviate their financial burdens. In the short-term this might pay off, due to the additional income a family in poverty would be then able to cover the reasonable basic living expenses, child labor could therefor resolve economic hardship.
But what about the economic impacts in the long run? Experts agree that legalizing child labor could actually intensify poverty. Their main argument lays in the fact that working children tend to miss out a proper education. Although the law imposes school attendance, by taking up employment children would not have the time nor the energy to concentrate on their homework and could even drop out of school. As a consequence, the uneducated children turn into low-income adults and would remain on a lifelong low income level; and in poverty?