President Evo Morales of Bolivia has taken a firm stand against a bill proposing to ban child labor under the age of 14. Citing his own life experience as a child laborer, he argued that such work builds “social conscience” and has a place in his country.
“We should not ban child labor, but we should not exploit children, either,” he announced this week after meeting with pro-labor youth groups lobbying the President to prevent the bill from passing. The groups, according to Argentina’s Infobae, defend the rights of children who have lost their parents or otherwise fallen into severe economic distress, arguing that without an avenue to work, the children would not have the ability to eat. Morales did not propose any government safety net or program that would prevent children from having to make the choice between starvation and labor, a choice which often eliminates education as an option.
“I agree with the children [who visited] this morning,” Morales told the press after the meeting. “When one works from a young age, one has a greater social conscience.” He reminded the audience that as a child he worked at a bakery and as a brick maker. Also, at a very young age, he helped his father in the sugar fields. As an adult, he sent his own children into the workforce to shepherd llamas in the Bolivian countryside.
Official Bolivian state statistics suggest that the nation is home to about 850,000 child laborers, which violates the policies promoted by the International Labor Organization. The current bill facing Bolivia would put the country in line with that group’s provisions, which ban labor for those 14 years old and younger. Interior statistics also show that, of those 850,000, about 87% are working in risky or dangerous jobs.
Morales has faced some heavy international backlash for his remarks. The President of the Socialist Party of Chile (and former Labor Secretary under former President and current President-Elect Michelle Bachelet), Osvaldo Andrade, called his comments “stupidity” and argued that “no one who calls himself socialist can support child labor.”
Morales considers himself a far-left socialist and strong ally of fellow socialist Bolivarian Republics Venezuela, Argentina, and Ecuador. This has been a troublesome year for relations between the Morales administration and both the United States and the greater international community, as he ejected USAID from his country over remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry. He also threatened to expel the United States Ambassador to La Paz after the United States forced the Bolivian president to land under suspicions that he was housing NSA whistleblower/international fugitive Edward Snowden in his airplane. Morales also lost an American prisoner this month at the hands of an unexpected Sean Penn rescue and announced a crackdown this week on the activities of foreign NGOs he believes are “conspiring against the government.”