Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch: Putting 10-Year-olds to Work Doesn’t Solve Poverty

The Bolivian Congress passed a misguided bill last week that would allow children as young as 10 to work legally. If President Morales signs the bill into law, Bolivia will become the only country in the world with a legal employment age so low.

Supporters of the bill argue that children in Bolivia need to work out of economic necessity and lowering the working age can help address extreme poverty. But child labor isn’t a solution to poverty – research shows it perpetuates it. Children who work are more likely to miss out on school and end up in a lifetime of low-wage work.

Bolivia’s bill includes certain “safeguards,” such as parental consent and the voluntary participation of children. But “voluntary” consent means little in the case of a 10-year-old. In my research, I’ve found that young children are rarely able to resist family pressure to go to work. A young girl I interviewed in Morocco, for example, endured beatings from her employer and worked extreme hours because she felt obliged to help her family.

The bill also states that work by young children should not interfere with their education. But studies show that, even when working children have access to school, their education suffers. Children who work are often too tired to complete their homework or maintain regular attendance, and are far more likely to drop out of school.

Child labor may be seen as a short-term solution to economic hardship, but is actually a cause of poverty. People who start work as children end up with less education and lower earnings as adults. They are then more likely to send their own children to work, perpetuating the cycle of poverty from generation to generation.

Bolivia’s move is out of step with the rest of the world. Other countries have successfully addressed both child labor and poverty by expanding opportunities for education, by providing poor families with cash transfers that can alleviate the economic desperation that often drives them to send their children to work, and by effective enforcement of child labor laws.

Poor families may understandably be tempted to send their children to work in order to put food on the table. If the law says it’s okay, they will be even more likely to do so. Instead of facilitating child labor, the Bolivian government should be investing in real solutions to lift children and their families out of poverty. President Morales should not sign this misguided bill into law.

You may also read this blog on Human Rights Watch’s web site.