Bolivia leader -- an ex-child worker -- opposes child labor age

President Evo Morales said Monday he opposed any outright ban on child labor or setting a minimum age for workers in Bolivia -- as a former child worker, himself.

"It should not be banned," the socialist president, 54, said, drawing on his own experience to explain his opposition to legislation under consideration that would set a minimum age of 14 for child workers.

Morales, the country's first elected indigenous leader, worked as a helper in a bakery and making bricks when he was young.

Child labor as such "should not be banned. But (children) should not be exploited either," he said.

And "the State should be in charge of making sure that children are taken care of and protected," he added.

However, the president did not say the government could or would provide benefits generous enough to prevent all those under 14 from needing income from work.

Morales met in his office with members of young people's groups opposed to the legislation, which would bring Bolivia in line with International Labor Organization norms.

The ILO does not state that all work is bad for children, but it does set out the age 14 minimum for developing countries.

"Some of the kids complained about the ILO document, which does not acknowledge the huge efforts children make for many different reasons, family circumstances, having lost one or both parents, which make them have to work," the president explained.

"I happened to agree with these children this morning," said Morales who, in addition to his childhood jobs, went to Argentina with his father on sugar harvests at around age five, and, later, as a teen played the trumpet on the street busking for cash.

"When you start working as a child, you grow up with more of a social conscience," Morales said.

Bolivian lawmakers will continue work on the issue in coming months.

The Andean nation of 10.5 million is South America's poorest.

Some 850,000 Bolivian children are at work and not in school, official data show.

Despite recent declines in the worldwide incidence of child labor, much more must be done to tackle the issue, the Third International Conference on Child Labor heard in Brazil in October.

At that conference, International Labor Organization (ILO) Director-General Guy Ryder urged redoubled efforts, decrying that a target to eliminate the worst instances of child labor by 2016 will not be met.

Latest ILO global estimates show the total number of child laborers has dropped by one-third to 168 million since the last conference in The Hague in 2010.

The ILO also aims to highlight the plight of children working in difficult-to-monitor sectors of the economy, such as agriculture and illegal or hidden economic activities. These are where most child workers in Bolivia toil.

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