The Grave Business

What constitutes humane work? The issue has been the focus of a dispute between Bolivia and the international community since the country lowered its minimum working age to 10. The losers in the dispute are child laborers -- who fought in favor of the law.

The Day of the Dead is a good one for Guido. On Día de los Muertos, the cemetery in Potosí, Bolivia is filled with people, with entire families gathered in front of burial niches stacked one on top of the other. They have brought flowers with them and tantawawas, Bolivian bread babies that are part of the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Those who can afford it have their dearly departed serenaded by solo guitarists or by entire mariachi bands. But families on a budget turn to 13-year-old Guido, with his hoodie and his chubby cheeks.

Guido is a grave cleaner. His current project is a burial niche on the fourth level of Pavilion 113. He climbs up a ladder and first rids the interior of the worst of the grime before polishing the pane of glass and the frame. Once he's finished, the family hands him a 10 boliviano bill, worth about 1.40 euros.

Guido began doing the job when he was 11. "If I'm lucky, I can earn about 100 bolivianos in a day," he says. With seven children in the family and his father deceased, it is money that his mother badly needs. But Guido says he would still be here even under better circumstances. "I would always want to work," he says.

In the West, such a thing is frowned upon, but children like Guido are officially allowed to work in Bolivia. Two years ago, socialist President Evo Morales' government passed a law allowing children 10 and older to work under certain conditions, provided they are self-employed. Once they are 12, they can be hired as regular employees.

The international community was distraught. Few business practices are as unanimously rejected by industrialized nations as child labor. Even many of the world's poorest countries have officially banned children under the age of 14 from working. With the passage of Law 548, however, Bolivia became the first country in the world to buck this trend.

The debate over the law has continued until today and it raises an important question: Will the world ever agree on what constitutes "decent work opportunities?" Guaranteeing such jobs is one of the United Nations sustainable development goals, which also includes the goal to "end child labor in all its forms" by 2025.

But in Bolivia, even a number of the purported victims of child labor readily accept it. Among the most vocal advocates for lowering the working age were unions representing working children and adolescents, who are referred to by the Spanish acronym NATs. Such children's unions are particularly powerful in the mining city of Potosí and Guido also wears the logo of CONNATSOP, the local organization of child labor unions, on his red vest.

On paper, the children's unions won two years ago, but not in the real world. The truth is that their situation has threatened to deteriorate since passage of the new legislation. They are trapped in a dispute that has as much to do with ideology as it does with child welfare.

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