Man at His Best

The Necessity Of Legal Child Labour

Two years ago, the Bolivian government passed a bill to lower the minimum working age to 10. For the government, and the child workers, this was a step in the right direction.

BY Matteo Fagotto | May 17, 2016 | Culture

Photography by Phil Moore | Nine-year-old Alberto cleans a car window at La Paz, Bolivia, earning about SGD0.20 for it.

On a bright summer’s morning, a short, lean figure slips out of a dilapidated building lost in the secluded alleys of downtown La Paz, Bolivia. Dressed in a bright red hoodie, blue jogging bottoms and black tennis shoes, his face covered by a cap worn over a dark balaclava, the young boy rapidly walks the short distance towards Plaza Mayor, the centre of this bustling, magnet-like city, lost among the peaks and the plateaus of the Andes.

Carrying only a small wooden box, this 13-year-old starts glancing from one pair of shoes to another, the only things he will look at for the next few hours. “I can clean any of them, from leather ones, to boots and sneakers,” he explains, while meticulously brushing the footwear of his first client of the day.

Photography by Phil Moore | Ruben Flores brings out the shine from a man's shoe.

“It’s not a difficult job, but you have to be quick and precise,” he continues. 

Every day, just like him, scores of anonymous, masked lustrabotas (shoe shiners) work the streets of this poor, landlocked Latin American country, home to an estimated 850,000 child labourers out of a population of 10 million people.

While in the Bolivian countryside, children work as peasants and cattle herders, a short walk through La Paz reveals scores of them toiling at food stalls, collecting tickets on minibuses and cleaning windshields at traffic lights.

In a land whose president, Evo Morales, is a former child worker himself, the story of Ruben Flores, the lustra, is all too common.

The eldest of five siblings, Ruben started shoe-shining when he was 10. After practising for a month by repeatedly cleaning his younger siblings’ shoes, he hit the streets with his father Johnny and has been working alone since he turned 13.

Photography by Phil Moore | Ruben Flores walks the street of La Paz, Bolivia, with his shoe-shine box and stool.

“I liked it from the very start. I earn money, I can buy my own food and clothes,” he explains, while sipping tea during a pause. “But when I grow up, I want to become a footballer or a lawyer.”

Ruben works half a day during school term, and full time at weekends and during holidays, earning around 80 Bolivianos (a little more than SGD15) for a full day’s work.

According to the International Labour Organisation, 168 million children work worldwide in countries as disparate as China, Russia, Brazil and Indonesia. But while most governments have tried to stem the phenomenon by making child labour illegal, Bolivia has taken the opposite route: it lowered the minimum working age to 10.

Although the new law gives priority to education and includes safeguards such as parental consent, and the prohibition of hard and exploitative work, it contravenes international treaties Bolivia has ratified, drawing sharp criticism from United Nations agencies and various associations.

Human Rights Watch labelled the decision a “short-term solution to economic hardship”, which could compromise the education of the younger generations and perpetuate Bolivia’s cycle of poverty. But the local government insists that the new legislation simply acknowledges the reality of a country where 45 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and poor children have no choice but to work in order to sustain their families.

Far from being a government imposition, the new law was requested by several child labour unions, who wanted their associates’ activities to be recognised, in order to demand better working conditions and prevent exploitation.

Ruben lives with his family at the Fundacion Nuevo Dia (New Day Foundation), a shoe shiners’ association which counts 35 children among its 150 members. Housed in a rundown, dingy building not far from the city centre, the association charges 5.50 Bolivianos (SGD1) a day to its members, where lustras can change their clothes, have a shower and eat a hot lunch.

Photography by Phil Moore | Ruben Flores shows the money he earned for a day's work: about SGD6.

A few months ago, the organisation selected Ruben’s mother as the building caretaker, prompting the whole family to move in, leaving behind the dodgy neighbourhood of Calle Beni. “It was a dangerous place, especially at night. Once, thieves broke into a neighbour’s house and killed him with a hammer,” Ruben nonchalantly recounts, seemingly impervious to the gruesomeness of the memory. “The following morning, his apartment was a pool of blood.”

Despite recent improvements, according to UNICEF, Bolivia remains the Latin American country with the highest percentage of working children (26 percent, compared with an average of 11 percent across the continent). Many local activists and labour experts agree on the necessity to monitor the children’s working activities better, but they stop short of denouncing child labour as a phenomenon.

“In the local indigenous world, work is part of the education of a child,” explains Betsabe’ Evia Cabrera, pedagogic coordinator at a child support organisation in El Alto, a satellite city overlooking La Paz, where an estimated 70 percent of children work. “If we see them as persons who are building their own future, rather than just poor kids, work can be something positive,” he adds.

Ruben, a few hours into his working day, is joined in Plaza Mayor by his long-time friends and colleagues, 15-year-old Roberto and 13-year-old Alvaro. Since meeting a few years ago, they have become an inseparable trio and spend most of their time together; combining work with short spells of football and table-football.

Photography by Phil Moore | Ruben Flores takes the afternoon off with his friend, Roberto.

Whenever they have a break and pass by a candy seller or a food stall, the conflict between their juvenile nature and their sense of responsibility emerges. “I want a salchipapa,” Ruben suddenly utters, looking at the plates of sausages and French fries, sizzling in a stand.

After carefully counting the few coins he’s earned that day, he gives up, understanding that buying it would wipe out almost all of his daily income. Unabated by the discovery, the trio keep on walking, teasing and joking with each other until they get back to the square to resume work.

Ruben is used to sacrifices for the sake of his family. “We never gave him any gifts. We only have enough money to eat,” acknowledges his 35-year-old mother, Amalia Lucana Vilqua, a woman visibly marked by hardships and struggles, her face always clouded by a sad smile. 

“I just buy him a small cake and cook his favourite dish for his birthday,” she says.

A few days earlier, Ruben’s parents had promised him a trip on the teleferico, a cable car which dominates La Paz and affords spectacular views of the city. But the much-awaited excursion never materialised. “I told him we couldn’t go because we didn’t have money,” she continues, with a hint of shame and resignation in her voice. “He didn’t complain. He understands our situation.”

Rather than feeling bitter, Ruben is grateful for his growing role within the family. “Working has made me a lot more responsible,” he explains. “I don’t find anything bad in what I do because I am just helping my family.”

"Working has made me a lot more responsible. I don't find anything bad in what I do because I am just helping my family."

While child labour gives an important contribution to the local economy, many Bolivians still fail to appreciate its value. “It’s an issue that stirs either scandal or pity, rather than prompting an analysis of its causes,” explains Isbel Adriana Flores Valdez, a psychologist at the Fundacion La Paz, an association that provides services to working children. “Many children work out of economic necessity or to pay for their studies, and they are proud of what they do. Yet, they are stigmatised, both within the government and at school.”

According to school directors and social workers, authorities don’t have a clear vision on how to deal with the issue of child labour, reflecting a deep rift between those officials who condemn it and those who consider it a necessity. “The main intention of the new law was to address the situation of families in extreme poverty. We need to eradicate that first in order to stop child labour,” explains Lidia Veramendi Martinez, Director of The Unity of Fundamental Rights at the local Ministry of Labour.

Photography by Phil Moore | Ruben Flores sits on a bed that he shares with his four siblings.

In school, child workers are often discriminated against by teachers, who consider them either too cheeky and disrespectful, or simply not worthy of attention. Ruben himself admits he doesn’t tell his schoolmates about his job. “In my class, there are only three working pupils out of 37. I don’t want the others to harass or make fun of me,” he explains candidly.

The boy’s concerns arise also from the fact that shoe shining is considered one of the most undesirable jobs in Bolivia, which is the main reason why lustras hide under balaclavas. Many don’t want to be recognised and don’t reveal their job even to their families or girlfriends for fear of being shunned.

Although most children work out of necessity, they are adamant that it doesn’t prevent them from acquiring a good education. “People have a very rigid mentality when it comes to child labour. Some of us are among the best students, and studying will always be a fundamental base for our development,” explains 17-year-old Felix Mamani Mayta, a child worker, a systems engineering student at La Paz University and a national delegate of the MODENAT trade union.

“There is this stigma that child workers are frustrated and not good enough, but it is actually the opposite,” adds Cabrera. “They are much more creative and extroverted than the average kids, and much more responsible towards their families.”

Although Mayta hopes that Bolivia’s new legislation will set an example for Latin America and help spearhead a campaign to legalise child labour elsewhere, the law’s proper implementation will be crucial to improve child workers’ conditions, especially in a country where 80 percent of work is informal and unregulated.

Photography by Phil Moore | A boy sells Santa hats on the street.

Bolivian children often start working at the age of five, while some of them are employed in dangerous jobs for a pittance, with no training, pension or insurance in case of an accident. Moreover, many define what they do as “helping my family” rather than work, a lack of awareness which contributes to the abuses that some of them face.

“We always ask our members to acknowledge they work, both to themselves and to others,” explains Mayta. “We have to value ourselves and understand the role that we play within society.”

At the foundation, lustras, too, believe this is the only way forward for Bolivia. “Some of us have become doctors, professors, lawyers and administrators,” explains Miguel Angel Sumi, one of the association’s board directors. “Rather than despising us, people should understand that there could be mayors, members of parliament or even a president coming from our ranks.”

When the sun sets on Plaza Mayor and the mountain stars appear in the darkening sky, Ruben heads back to the Fundacion with a few dozen coins clinking in his pockets. After a quick shower, he watches TV with his siblings before heading to the cramped, wooden rooftop room where he sleeps with the rest of his family.

His father recently told him that he doesn’t plan on making his younger brothers work, which puts an additional responsibility on the already broad shoulders of this little man. “He always helps out the family. Every time we are in dire straits, he offers to buy food for all of us. I never say no,” admits his mother, looking at him with undisguised pride.

Then, a sudden memory enters her mind, filling her eyes with tears. “A few days ago, Ruben told me, ‘Mum, I am going to keep on working. I want to buy a car and bring all my brother and sisters to university one day.’”

From: Esquire Singapore's May 2016 issue.