Child Labour Trends in Latin America

17/11/2011 - Child labour in Colombia and Bolivia, among other countries, is taking on new dimensions. The issue is a prominent child welfare issue for the two countries, both among CIDA's priorities.

An investigation by the non-governmental organization, Corporacion Encuentro, found that the number of child labourers in central Colombia’s Meta department is twice the number in the rest of the country.

A survey of 4,500 children revealed that 18 per cent of minors were working in manual labour. In the rest of the country, the child labour rate is 9.2 per cent. Worryingly, 70 per cent of the children stated that they would rather work than attend school. Maintaining the basic necessities of life is an immediate concern for the 33 per cent of children who must work to help their families make ends meet.

Child labourers are most seen working construction or street vending jobs. However, the biggest threat is sex tourism, said project-head Jeimy Barrera to Colombia Reports. In the town of Villavicencio, agents of sexual exploitation have approached more than a quarter of child labourers.

It can be a fine line between child soldiering and other types of child labour. Almost a third of working children in Meta admitted to having been tempted to join illegal armed groups or networks of sexual exploitation. Colombia is home to 11,000 child soldiers (a quarter of whom are girls), 35,000 child prostitutes and 2.7 million child labourers in all.

TIME magazine reported a new labour trend emerging across Latin America. While children are often viewed as subjects of adult protection, they have a right to be heard on – and participate in –matters that concern them. In countries like Bolivia, more than 100,000 children and adolescents have unionized to defend their “right to work.”  These “child unions” exist in Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guatemala, Paraguay and Nicaragua.

Bolivia's Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (UNATSBO) represents 15,000 workers aged eight to 18, demanding government protection and improved working conditions as the economic downturn and other realities require them to work to help their families.

“Hundreds of millions of children still left working exist in a legal void that makes them the world's most vulnerable labor force,” TIME reports.

The issue brings to bear difficult questions for child rights and welfare activists, concerning children’s agency and participation versus their protection. However, legislating a child labour sector that is nationally or internationally illegal, would mean condoning it – something that that the Bolivian government is against, in honour of its international commitments.

Most countries have signed onto anti-child labour provisions enshrined in the International Labour Organization’s Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These provisions establish minimum ages for employment and abolish the “worst” forms of child labour. Still, Latin America is home to 14 million of the world’s 215 million child labourers aged five to 17.

In Bolivia, most of the country’s one million child labourers aren’t wholly disenfranchised, but work for a few hours a day and still attend school.  Among their primary concerns are age-based discrimination in pay and protection – someone to “look out” for them.

Both Colombia and Bolivia are priority countries for aid from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). According to CIDA, despite the Colombian economy being equipped to weather the global economic crisis, income inequality persists with 16 per cent of the population living on less than $1.25 per day. Children are particularly vulnerable, making up more than half of the country’s poor. Meanwhile, Bolivia is the continent’s most impoverished nation, with one in eight Bolivians living on less than $1.25 per day. Rural women, children and indigenous people are the most vulnerable.