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January 01, 2005

Combating the Worst Forms of Child Labor in Bolivia

by Kurt Henne and David Moseley

The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that day by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and emulation up by, was passing away from me never to be brought back any more; cannot be written.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Charles Dickens’s happy childhood ended at age twelve, when he went to work in a blacking shoe polish factory to support his family after his father was imprisoned for debt. He never fully recovered from his emotional wounds, his scars becoming poignant autobiographical material for his own art. Dickens’s novels include harrowing portraits of child workers whose grueling labor eviscerates their physical and cognitive development, deprives them of essential care and nurture, and stunts their growth toward responsible maturity.

Dickens’s portraits of child labor in David Copperfield and other novels roused a wave of indignation in Victorian England and fueled the reform agenda that outlawed the worst forms of child labor in his own country and later in the United States. Today, however, 150 years after Dickens campaigned for change, the twin evils of poverty and economic opportunism perpetuate the devastating practice of exploitative child labor.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 250 million children between the ages of five and fourteen in developing countries qualify as child laborers, with at least 120 million working full time. Sixty-one percent are in Asia, 32 percent in Africa, and 7 percent in Latin America. Their work varies, from helping with the family farm to performing physically demanding tasks in manufacturing, construction, and extractive industries.

These unfortunate children work long hours, often in unhealthy conditions. Many use hazardous pesticides or chemicals; others use dangerous tools and machines. Denied an education and a normal childhood, many of them are confined and beaten, reduced to a state of slavery. This sort of child labor creates lasting physical and psychological wounds and constitutes a grave violation of human rights.

The international community has attempted to end the practice of child labor. The 1973 ILO Minimum Age Convention, which bans any form of child labor, has been ratified by 117 nations. In 1999, ILO members unanimously approved a treaty banning any form of child labor that endangers the safety, health, or morals of children, but the treaty only applied to the most egregious and objectionable forms of work, such as slavery, forced labor, child prostitution, criminal activity, and forced military recruitment. In some ways, the 1999 treaty can be seen as a step backward from the 1973 convention.

Other widely ratified conventions protect the right to education, which is intimately linked to the right to be free from the abuses of child labor. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims a right to education, as does the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. With regard to the interplay between child labor and education, Article 32 of the 1989 convention explicitly guarantees children the right “to be protected from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education.”

The Bolivian Context

In the barren highlands of Bolivia, the mining industry remains one of the few employment options for local people. Once the richest city in the southern hemisphere, Potosí’s silver mines bankrolled the Spanish empire for over 300 years. Today, the mining industry is struggling, and mine owners have turned to cheap child labor to cut costs and squeeze out more profits. Faced with a depressed economy and a dearth of education opportunities, many families—like their ancestors in colonial times—have sent a growing number of their children deep underground to work. Approximately 120,000 Bolivian children are allegedly involved in small-scale mining. In the Department of Potosí, more than 6,660 children reportedly work in mines.

Mining is dangerous and debilitating for child workers. The 1999 ILO Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention defines mining as one of the most egregious violations of child labor laws. Children are subjected to backbreaking physical labor, hauling dynamite, debris, and water. They witness deadly mine accidents, some involving their own parents. Many children who work in the mines do not attend school at all, and those who attempt to balance work and school often find that mining interferes with their education. The children in the mining town of Uncia in the Department of Potosí gaze at visitors with eyes and faces that look old beyond their years. They don’t smile. They don’t play. They sit slumped in their chairs, tired and listless, and describe the harshness of their lives in a matter-of-fact way. They accept the situation as their fate and their duty.

Mining is not the only form of child labor in Bolivia. Overall, the government estimates that 800,000 of the nation’s children work as laborers. Approximately 60 percent of them do not attend school, with 70 percent living in rural areas where they work in the construction, livestock, and agricultural sectors. In urban areas, children find employment in the services sector, commerce, manufacturing and industry, and family businesses. Some children are domestic workers or are trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. Children in Bolivia generally enter the labor market between the ages of ten and twelve, but children reportedly as young as six years old are working, some the same number of hours as adults.

Bolivian labor laws provide some protection for the country’s children. Bolivia ratified the Minimum Age Convention in 1997. The country’s Child and Adolescent Code sets the minimum age for employment at fourteen years, and prohibits minors from dangerous, unhealthy, and physically taxing work. The General Labor Law prohibits forced labor. The Bolivian Constitution identifies the provision of education as a principal responsibility of the state. It establishes free compulsory primary education for children ages six to fourteen and mandates that secondary education, including vocational education, must be “available and accessible to every child.”

The gap between law and reality for child workers in Bolivia can be explained only by the country’s macro- and micro-level economics, and the critical limitations of both the law enforcement and judicial systems. Any solution to child labor in Bolivia must address these factors as well.

Breaking the Cycle

Education is often presented as a solution to child labor, and the relationship between child labor and education is important and symbiotic. Many children who work in the mines or elsewhere do not attend school at all, and those who do attempt to balance work and school often find that their work interferes with education. Those who remain in school must keep up with classes after a full day’s work. Consequently, school dropout among working children is endemic. Without an education, many of these children have little or no hope of ever escaping from occupations that are dangerous for adults, let alone children. Long-term family poverty is almost guaranteed.

Yet education is not a panacea. Mining companies lack motivation to comply with the law. Rather, they welcome children who will labor for low wages and boost company earnings. Impoverished families, with pressing short-term needs for shelter and food, fail to understand the long-term benefits of investing in their children’s education. Ultimately, eliminating child mining requires well-designed, comprehensive strategies that improve the security of mining families by providing alternative income-generating opportunities. This will render child labor less necessary and will also contribute to the protection of children’s rights within Bolivia’s legal framework.

• Among the general public, awareness must be raised about children’s rights and the dangers of, and harm caused by, child labor. This creates a social control mechanism through which the general population recognizes and reports child labor to appropriate authorities. Local authorities must also acknowledge the existence and magnitude of the problem.

• Training must be provided to human rights officers, members of the judicial system, and the municipal government on child labor and human rights laws.

• Partnerships must be created with churches, school administrators and teachers, neighborhood groups, and mass media networks to confront human rights violations.

• The quality of education must be improved in schools with large numbers of child laborers. Teachers must be trained to provide optimal support for working children, and must understand that a student’s poor performance may be due to fatigue rather than an inability to grasp content.

• Vocational training, microenterprise, and product marketing support must be provided to generate and manage income, and thus sustain any progress made in the removal of children from dangerous work situations.

Despite the brutalizing effect of his year spent in the blacking factory, Charles Dickens was able to improvise an education for himself and become a writer. Education would prove to be his salvation, although his harrowing experiences as a child laborer would haunt his imagination for the rest of his life. Education will play a crucial role for Bolivia’s child workers as well, offering the opportunity to reverse their ever-constricting prospects. The stakeholders of Bolivian society must be mobilized to demand that the lofty promises of the law are not simply a distant echo for children who labor underground in conditions that can only be described as “Dickensian.”


Kurt Henne is the country director in Bolivia for Project Concern International (PCI), an international health and development agency based in San Diego, California. David Moseley is the senior grant writer at the same organization. For more information about PCI’s efforts in Bolivia, visit and