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Bolivia has lowered the age limit to work to 10 years – the lowest in the world. The measure is intended to help combat extreme poverty in the South American country, but it also violates international treaties.
Bolivia's Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera signed the law into effect which had been passed by parliament earlier this month.
Garcia Linera said that lowering the working age from 14 was necessary despite international agreements on childrens' rights. He said it was important to find a balance between Bolivia's reality and international treaties.
The text of the law says children between 10 and 14 years of age may work on their own, under supervision of their parents, "provided that the activity does not affect their education."
Children age 12 to 14 may also work for people outside the family, but only for six hours a day instead of the previous eight-hour-day.
The bill's sponsors argued that lowering the minimum working age simply acknowledged the reality that many poor families in Bolivia had no alternative than sending their children to work.
"Child labor already exists in Bolivia and it's difficult to fight it. Rather than persecute it, we want to protect the rights and guarantee the labor security of children," said Adolfo Mendoza, one of the bill's sponsors.
Unionized young workers marched on Congress to prevent it from ratifying a bottom-end work age of 14 in December 2013.
"The president gave us his support. He also worked as a boy, herding llamas," Rodrigo Medrano, head of the Union of Boy, Girl and Adolescent Workers, told The Associated Press, saying there was no alternative in a society where half the population is poor.
A study conducted in 2008 by the ILO, the Bolivian government and the United Nations Fund for Children (UNICEF), found that 850,000 children between the ages of five and 17 were working. That was one in four.
The jobs included working in textile factories, street vending, sugar cane harvesting and underground mining.
More recent estimates children say children make up 15 percent of the country's workforce.
One in three doesn't attend school.
The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the legislation.
"We think this is a terrible move," HRW's children's rights expert Jo Becker told the German news agency dpa. "All research shows child labor doesn't solve poverty, it perpetuates it."
The organization said such a young working age meant children were even less likely to finish school, then less likely to be able to earn a good living as adults, and then less likely to send their own children to school.
The law will go into force a year from now, to give time for municipalities and provinces to enact new rules.
Bolivia is going against a regional trend: Mexico has set age 15 as the minimum and Chile age 16.
The International Labor Organization, which reported that Latin American and Caribbean together accounted now for 13 million of the planet's estimated 168 million working children, said it would investigate the law.
It sees a breach of global rules, with the UN having designated 14 as the minimum work age.
The UN reported that child labor had gone down by one third globally since 2000.
rg/av (AFP, AP, dpa)