Unions confront child labor in Latin America

Child labor remains a vexing problem throughout the world. But labor unions in some nations are stepping up efforts to change things, as reported in today’s edition of The Guardian in a story entitled “Bolivia’s child workers unite to end exploitation.” As the story begins:

“Shining shoes, mining and herding animals among the many jobs done by an estimated 750,000 children between five and 17.Rodrigo Medrano Calle is a Bolivian labour leader who meets and lobbies top government officials for his constituency’s rights. That’s not surprising in a country where pay is often low, working conditions harsh and unions play a powerful role in society. What’s unusual is that Rodrigo is just 14 years old, and his union’s members are all children.

“I started working when I was nine, and I’ve done everything, shining shoes, bus driver’s assistant, selling. I’ve gone through most of the jobs common for child and adolescent workers,” said Rodrigo, who now sells chewing gum and cigarettes in bars at weekends, making £4-£5 for a night’s work. “I lived on the street for a time and was going in the wrong direction, but then I found the movement, and it gave me a reason to be. I’m going to fight for my compañeros’ rights, not just my own.”

“Rodrigo’s organisation, the Bolivian Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (Unatsbo), represents thousands of under-18s, in seven of the country’s nine departments. And it’s not just a Bolivian phenomenon: there are similar chapters in Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru and Colombia. Often funded by international donors, the organisations seek to bring young workers together to defend their rights and promote education. In Bolivia, successes include organising pay rises for children who sell newspapers on the city streets of Potosí from 6 cents (½p) to 12 cents a paper, using negotiations and the threat of strikes.”

“Child workers are in a legal blindspot: their work is prohibited and so they have very little defence if employers exploit them through long hours, physical or verbal abuse or refusing to pay a decent wage. “If you have to work, then you have to work exploited,” she said of those situations. “This just makes you more vulnerable.”

Bolivia’s informal economy includes everyone from bricklayers to farmers to shoeshiners, who work without contracts and set schedules. Many adults are part of this market, as are the great majority of child and adolescent workers. These young workers seem to be everywhere – in the cities they pack groceries at the supermarket, shine shoes on pavements, collect fares on buses, and sell cigarettes and sweets late at night in smoky beer halls. In the countryside they help their parents in the fields, herd sheep and llamas, or do the brutal work of mining or the sugar cane harvest.

For complete story, see The Guardian



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