• In Latin America, Looking at the Positive Side of Child Labor

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Victor Chipani started working when he was 10 years old — a few hours each day, rounding up passengers to fill public minibuses in his impoverished city of El Alto, Bolivia, outside the capital, La Paz. Now, at 15, he does the job from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, earning less than a dollar an hour. His meager wage helps feed his eight siblings and covers his supplies for night school. But the small-framed teenager, who hopes to attend college and even medical school, doesn't want anyone's pity. He can defend himself, he insists — through his union. "United," he says, sounding like a seasoned adult laborite, "we as child workers can achieve anything."

Child labor, as it should be, is an urgent issue for any country at any level of development. Several states across the U.S., in fact, are wrestling with corporate-backed proposals to loosen child-labor laws in a downturn economy. But Chipani is part of a different movement rippling across Latin America. In countries like Bolivia, more than 100,000 children and teenagers have organized unions to defend their right to work, demanding government protection and improved job conditions. "We'd all like a world where kids don't have to work," says 17-year-old Noemí Gutiérrez, a leader of Bolivia's Union of Child and Adolescent Workers, or UNATSBO, which represents Chipani and 15,000 others ages 8 to 18. "But our current economic reality means we work to help our families, and our rights ought to be protected."

Globally, according to the Switzerland-based International Labour Organization (ILO), there are currently more than 215 million workers between the ages of 5 and 17, 14 million of them in Latin America. They dot agricultural fields, weave through city markets and shimmy down mine shafts. More than 150 nations, backed by millions of dollars from the U.N. Children's Fund, have adopted the ILO's landmark conventions, establishing legal minimum working ages (normally 14 or 15) and promising to abolish the "worst forms" of child labor. As a result, millions of children no longer endanger their lives every day for a pittance.

But, say UNATSBO and its partner unions, there's a problem. Much like undocumented immigrants in the U.S., the hundreds of millions of children still left working exist in a legal void that makes them the world's most vulnerable labor force. In Bolivia, South America's poorest nation, there are as many as a million child workers — the highest rate, proportional to population, on the continent. The vast majority are not frightened and abused waifs; rather, most spend a few hours a day tending crops, shining shoes, wheeling loads through markets or assisting in carpentry shops. Most also attend school. And someone, they insist, has to look out and stand up for them. "People pay us less because we are young," says 16-year-old UNATSBO president José Guillermo Mamani. "We are discriminated against, and no one is held accountable [for that]."

Governments like Bolivia's counter that legislating the child-labor sector would essentially mean condoning and legitimizing it. "We are not going to go in that direction," says Mabel Duran, who heads the federal Office for Child Labor Eradication, adding that the government will not consider lowering the acceptable working age. "We are honoring our international commitments."

Guilds like UNATSBO, then, say they have to play the necessary role the government won't touch. The first such child-worker organization was founded in Peru 35 years ago; today there are eight in Latin America (in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guatemala, Colombia, Paraguay and Nicaragua). They receive financial support from small child-advocacy NGOs, often with adult social workers as advisers. All require their members to stay in school and establish projects to improve working conditions. In Ecuador, the union has organized a system of cooperatives that provides better-paying jobs for children and teens. Venezuela's guild has forged pacts in which buyers purchase agricultural products farmed by kids at fair prices. In Bolivia, newspaper boys even held a strike to increase their pay.

The groups press for policy change as well. Instead of eradicating child labor, "why don't they think about eradicating the poverty" that breeds it? asks Gutiérrez, echoing a common youth-union refrain. They do agree on the need for some anti-child-labor laws, like banning work unsafe for kids, like mining, or jobs deemed exploitative or that keep youths from school. (UNATSBO, in fact, recently helped block a proposed constitutional ban on all child work and got it replaced instead with a prohibition on forced and exploitative labor.) But Alejandro Cussiánovich, who heads IFEJANT, a Lima-based child-advocacy group, and is a foremost expert on the child workers' rights movement, argues that putting child soldiers in the same basket with a 10-year-old who shines shoes a few afternoons a week — as the ILO agenda does — muddles the discussion.

The line between work that is acceptable for children and what is not is the crux of the debate. Kevin Beque, 11, started selling clothes in El Alto's outdoor market on Sundays when he was 7. "My mom didn't want me to work, but I insisted," says Beque, largely because he'd too often overheard his parents discuss financial woes. The ILO considers him part of Latin America's 5.1 million at-risk child workers because he's under 14 — but Beque says he wonders what the difference is between him and the American kids with paper routes he often sees in Hollywood movies.

Chipani works long shifts but says he has no boss to harangue him and takes days off to complete his night-school homework when he needs to. The Bolivian government deems working on public transport one of the country's 23 "inherently dangerous" jobs for 15- to 18-year-olds; but Chipani says his only injuries have been jamming his fingers in the sliding door (twice) and once slipping on a wet sidewalk and scraping his head. "I've been way more hurt playing soccer," he says.

Traditional child-labor opponents say they appreciate the kids' efforts but insist the slope is too slippery. "Our goal is to protect the right of children to be children" says María Elena Reyes, the ILO's child-labor-eradication coordinator in Bolivia. Others fear that cheerleading for child labor could backfire by making corporations and even human traffickers more child-predatory, putting the past two decades' advances at risk.

Still, the kids are ever ready with rebuttals. At one recent UNATSBO meeting, they eagerly rattled off work-experience benefits, such as a chance to improve math skills, learn new languages, appreciate responsibility and treat others with respect. "Working is dignified, and we are only doing our best in difficult situations," says Mamani, who also argues: "We're only able to stay in school because our wages cover our supplies." And politicos are starting to listen. "I believe we can protect these [child] workers while working toward a future in which children don't have to work," says Bolivian Congresswoman Rebeca Delgado. In Paraguay, President Fernando Lugo — whose first Children's Minister was a former leader of the child-workers' movement — sits down each year with child-worker-union representatives to hear their opinions on labor policy.

Even if the Bolivian government did pluck Chipani from his transit gig, "I'd just find another job," he says, tilting his head as if to say, Duh! "No one," he adds, "can tell me I can't work."