It is common knowledge that children are engaged in labor not only in Bolivia, and the repercussions can be seen on a global scope. Approximately 15% of all children worldwide are currently subject to child labor, with the majority working under unregulated, inhumane conditions outside of the public eye.
Empirically speaking, it is not easy to assess whether the legalization of child labor is a bad idea given the lack of peer reviewed coherent research and bearing in mind that Bolivia is the first nation that agreed in legalizing it. So far, there are no studies available that examine the effects of Bolivia’s new child labor law, however, we can learn from cases where countries took steps in the exact opposite direction and passed laws that didn’t legalize but ban child labor. Several empirical studies have shown that outlawing child labor would instead of improving actually worsen the situation of the children and lead to an increase in poverty. To illustrate this, in the 1990s a bill was passed in Bangladesh banning child labor from textile factories, leading to thousands of unemployed children over night. While in a western society this case might lead to them going back to school, the case of Bangladesh showed that these kids worked in industries more hazardous in nature such as street crime, sex work, and unregulated industrial complexes. In India, after the Child Labor Prohibition and Regulation Act of 1986 came into effect, the percentage of working children even grew instead of declining. While the ILO is pushing for an immediate, blanket removal of all children from what it calls the most “hazardous” occupations, many argue that the legalization of child labor is the better strategy to minimize child exploitation in the long run.
According to the Bolivian legal code supported by Evo Morales, Bolivia’s current president, children are supposed to receive mandatory schooling, which would improve the situation but given the time consuming nature of work and school even adults struggle to keep up. There is a small scale case study conducted in Egypt assessing how many hours of work can be undertaken before negative effects on school attendance can be observed. The study concludes a negative effect of child labor onto school attendance at all ages, however the effect is marginal for boys if they work up to 14 hours per week. While it is surely a comprehensible idea to tie child labor with mandatory schooling and surely an improvement to illegally working and missing school at the same time one can doubt that this policy has the desired effect.
So if the children receive higher revenue through the increased wage existence under the new law on child labor, it still seems unlikely for them to invest the remainder of time and money into schooling. The revenue theoretically however could be used to support the family and to limit the level of child labor on a family basis i.e. only one child needs to suffer through child labor, while two others might have the chance of receiving a formal education.
When discussing about the legalization of child labor one needs to understand however that children outside of Bolivia are working in ungoverned markets with a steadily increasing supply and recent research suggests that some child workers are replaced if they fall sick or get injured. There is no way to morally justify child labor, however it is important to note that any effort to improve the working conditions, children’s health and subsequently their general level of education, aids in the process of lifting the poverty line theoretically given a wage increase in the future.