April 16 is the International Day Against Child Slavery in South America. The day marks the death of Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani child who was sold into slavery and murdered at the age of 12. El Movimiento Cultural Cristiano commemorated the young child’s life by vowing to bring awareness to the plight of children forced into labor, especially in South America.
teleSUR English looks at some innovative approaches the progressive governments of Ecuador and Bolivia are taking to combat forced child labor and improve working conditions.
In Ecuador, the government follows a strictly prohibitionist policy. The current Labor Code formally prohibits the employment of children under 15 years old, while the labor day for teenagers over 15 cannot exceed six hours per day and 30 hours a week, without interfering with his or her education.
The Ecuadorean state also implemented various measures and agreements with the production sector, in order to reduce child labor. As a result, both sectors that have employed the highest number of children – agriculture and trade – have reduced their figure by 66 and 15 percent respectively.
As a result, the number of working children under 15-years-old has dropped by almost nine percent since 2007 according to the government, which plans to eradicate child labor by 2017.
Two other factors have helped to make the difference in recent years: one, the improvement of the global employment situation in the country in recent years; and two, better and free access to school, reducing school desertion of children.
Nevertheless, according to a 2015 UNESCO report, rural areas remain the most affected, as children work five more times than in urban areas, while Indigenous children are fives time more affected than Mestizo children. Girls are also still employed to do household work without receiving any remuneration.
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In Bolivia, the context is slightly different, as poverty affects more people than in Ecuador: an estimated 850,000 children work in Bolivia according to a 2012 UNESCO report, including 120,000 in the dangerous mining sector. This represents 17 percent of the total labor force, which makes Bolivia the country with the highest ratio of child labor per population.
First, following a prohibitionist approach similar to Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the progressive government of Evo Morales finally ceded to the pressure of a large movement of child workers, organized since the 2011 in a union called Unatsbo.
In December 2013, they protested strongly against a reform of the Labor Code prohibiting further child labor. As the protest turned violent with clashes against the police, their mobilization was largely covered in the media, and Morales finally agreed to hear their requests at the presidential palace.
After months of tough debates in Congress, on Aug. 6, 2014, lawmakers eventually approved the government's proposal to allow children from 10-years-old to work, yet only if the activity is not "dangerous" and if it does not harm the child's access to education. In Bolivia, children usually need to work if they want to continue studying, because their parents usually cannot afford the school expenses, even with the governmental help allocated since Morales' government.
Many professionals working with children in Bolivia admitted that the measure represented a significant improvement for children, providing legal protection in the many cases where they are exploited, and access to health services, at least until Bolivia can totally eradicate poverty.