This week, Jean Friedman-Rudovsky presents a five-part series featuring stories of women and girls in Bolivia and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. It’s called Ground Shifters: Stories of Women Changing Unseen Worlds.
We've all heard tales about child labor – the suffering, gross injustice and heartache. Today, we conclude our series with an unusual child labor story.
In “Girls Gauntlets,” we meet Ana, Brigida and Noemí, a group of young girls in La Paz, Bolivia who work — and are proud of it.
In fact, they’re so proud that they have unionized, along with more than a hundred thousand child workers across Latin America, to demand respect and legal protection, reports Jean Friedman-Rudovsky.
When I first came to Bolivia, it didn’t take long to notice an active 5 foot-and-under world. Kids — everywhere — working. In the countryside, they dot expansive fields, chopping sugar cane for the harvest. In the cities, they offer to shine my shoes and hang out the open doors of buses, encouraging passengers aboard.
I had a knee jerk reaction: child labor—ugh—it hurts to bear witness.
But what I didn’t realize is that what I saw, and what I’ve always learned, was not the whole story.
On a recent Saturday morning, 16 year-old Ana Guadalupe Perez Rosas was washing dishes. She's a domestic worker, with a system: first the glasses, then plates, then cutlery and finally pots. That way, she explains, pot grease doesn’t dirty the rest.
Bolivia has 9 million inhabitants; one million are child workers, some who started working as early as seven. Of these, almost half are girls. The girls, like their jobs, are often hidden, inside homes or in the backs of restaurants.
Ana started working as a domestic worker when she was 14, but her first job, as a kitchen assistant, was when she was 12. One day, her mother, who is a also domestic worker, had an accident and Ana offered to stand in for her. She's been doing the job ever since..
Ana works two mornings a week with the same family, and then takes other jobs on the side when she can. She says her pay helps her buy food for her family and sometimes her salary goes to the electricity or water bills.
It also buys her own school supplies. Ana can spend 30 hours a week working, but like the vast majority of child workers in Bolivia, she also attends school.
With her gentle demeanor and dish-pan hands, 16 year old Ana is an outlaw. It doesn’t matter that she’s never harmed anyone, or that she is an “A” student. As a child laborer, she is told by Bolivian law and our society that something is wrong with her. Childhood ought to be for play and learning, we say, not for cleaning other peoples’ homes.
But this girl, and more than 100,000 youngsters throughout Latin America, are fed up with feeling like they are a plague that ought to be eradicated. They’ve gotten together to challenge one of the modern era’s most fundamental foundations: that child labor is wrong.
"I belong to the organization, La Paz TAYPINATS which means Child and Adolescent Worker’s Gathering Place," Ana says. "We are an organization of boy and girl child and adolescent workers—shoe shiners, street sellers, domestic workers, construction workers, many different sectors. Above all, we ask the government for protection as workers and that we be treated respectfully by society. Because, the majority of the time we are oppressed. They think that it’s not right for us to work, that at our childhood we should be for playing and learning. But they don’t want to recognize the reality in Bolivia. The majority of us kids work because our family needs something from us, like helping to put food on the table or to support younger siblings."
Ana is very modest. She’s more than a member — she’s the President of the La Paz chapter of the national child worker union, UNATSBO. Across the country, about 15,000 unionized boy and girl child and adolescent workers speak with one voice. They range in age from 8 to 18.
As I travel the country and learn about this growing movement, my head spins. My preconceived notions of child labor go out the window. These kids combine work and school. Education is a union requirement. They aren’t slaving away in factories either. Most work on their own schedules. And they hate the pity we throw at them. Rather, they are proud as workers, and they organize for their rights. Strong child worker unions now stretch from Paraguay to Peru, from Venezuela to Ecuador.
Their primary goal is political. Like undocumented immigrants in the United States, child workers exist in a void. The kids want protections, but it’s a battle. Governments in the developing world promised the International Labour Organization, the United Nations and other world bodies outlaw child labor. They say that they can’t offer these young people workers rights, because legislating the sector would mean condoning the practice.
Thus, kids remain society’s most vulnerable workforce. They’re paid less than adults for performing the same work. Those who work on the street—shining shoes or selling in markets—are frequently robbed or beaten up for their meager earnings. Kids are not entitled to breaks or overtime and have no recourse from employer abuse because, hey—they shouldn’t be working in the first place.
And on top of all of that — within this already discriminated workforce, girls suffer yet again, Ana reminds me as she finishes off the dishes.
"In any job, there is always more danger for girls than for boys," she says. "I think that in part it’s because it’s hard for us girls to speak up. We don’t say what goes on. In offices, bosses harass or assault a woman worker, or this happens in houses with domestic workers too. Women are always going to be more at risk."
Abandoned by the government — abused by their bosses, these girls have learned to fend—and organize—for themselves.
Adult lives, childhood dreams
Perched on a ladder in the central cemetery of the 14,000 ft. high city of Potosí, Bolivia, 17 year old Brígida Espinoza cleans the small face of a mausoleum.
Brígida, along with 9 other kids, are the cemetery’s caretakers. They dig and look after graves, and clean mausoleums for hire. Brígida has worked here for a year. Her first job doing neighbor’s laundry was when she was 11.
"I shine the name and get rid of the dust," says Brígida as she scrubs hard. "If the family asks for it, I clean the glass too."
Brigida normally earns between $1.50 and $2 per cleaning. At the cemetery’s entrance, I noticed that the prices are painted on a wall. Brigida tells me that’s the union’s doing.
"People would ask for a cleaning and then not want to pay because we are kids," Brígida said. "So we said, there should be a sign at the entrance that lists our prices. We use this to defend ourselves, so that people pay us what we are owed."
Brígida is a kind of single mom. She has no kids but is the only breadwinner for her two younger siblings, who are 14 and 11.
"The day we buried my mom, I was ten," Brígida says. "I work to be able to provide for my brother and sister. It’s been this way since my dad remarried and no longer gave us money."
The three of them live on their own, in a one room apartment. Her older brother Jonny used to support the family, but he passed away earlier this year. Now, the weight falls on Brígida. Yet despite this burden, she finds the time to be a union leader.
"There’s a council of elected representatives for each sector," she says. "I and two others, represent the cemetery, and we attend Saturday and Tuesday city-wide meetings."
Brigida invites me to her next meeting. In a ramshackle office in a drafty building in Potosi, the pre-teens and teens laugh and tease each other. I’m reminded they are still kids. But, Brigida says, this is not child’s play.
"We have regulations that we comply with, whether we want to or not," she says. "For example, when we have a meeting, you have to pay a fine of 15 cents for every minute you are late after the first five minutes. If you miss a meeting then half of what you earn on your next work day goes to the union. Same thing, if you miss a workshop, then we decide as a group what the penalty will be."
Girls like Brígida lead this national movement. There are hundreds of local female leaders like them. And seven out of the 9 nine current regional chapters Presidents of the national child worker union are young women.
Noemi Guiterrez is one of them. Poised, focused, and a little shy, Noemí is the coordinator for CONNATSOP, the Potosi Council of Organized Child Workers. She started working in a call center when she was 12 years old.
Now, at 17, Noemi manages an internet café.
During a union meeting she led on a recent night, the group discussed the status of negotiations with the government regarding new laws on children in the workplace. After the meeting, Noemi and I chat, and she explains what should have been painfully obvious to me.
"Everyone says that kids shouldn’t work, but they are not taking into account the economic reality in this country," Noemi said. "Sure, if we were all well off, none of us would have to work. But rather than thinking rationally, the government only says we need to eradicate child labor. I say, they ought to eradicate poverty first."
Of course. Again, billions of dollars spent to address symptoms of global inequality, rather than focusing on a cure to the root problem. Worse, we criminalize the young whose response to their difficult lives is trying to help their families. Amazingly, these children have taken our lemon—and made their own lemonade.
"For me working at this age isn’t a sacrifice or an obligation," says Ana. "It’s more like a good way to pass time when I forget my other problems. Other child workers feel the same way, they look forward to going out into the streets to sell, to meet new people. These kids develop their language skills and they become like little economists because they learn how to manage their money."
It is so complex. No, Ana is not a character in a Dickens novel. And the union believes there is a need for some anti-child labor laws. Any work that is inherently unsafe for children, like being inside a mine, must be illegal for the young.
But where do we draw the line? Ana, Brigida and Noemi don’t want our sympathy. My heart drops thinking about Brigida digging graves on the weekend to support her younger siblings.
Perhaps that’s where the union makes a difference. Their demand for respect is not about glossing over their troubled lives. It’s about wanting to be seen as dignified members of society and wanting their due legal protections.
It’s a radical proposal, but I see that the process of constructing new societal possibilities, helps the kids grow; particularly the girls. Through organizing, being a young activist helped every one of these girls find their voice.
"I used to be very shy," Brigida recalls. "I didn’t know how to speak in front of others. My compañeros said to me: “You have to talk,” but I would just get more nervous. Now I’ve lost that shyness and so really, this being a representative from the cemetery sector has helped me a lot."
Ana too credits her strong character to being part of this movement.
"You could say that a significant part of who I am comes from being in this organization," she says. "I learned how to value what’ around me, how to respect others, trust in my compañeros, and always take into account everyone’s opinion and make sure everyone is heard. I’ve learned how to always keep moving forward even when there are obstacles in my way. I’ve learned to never give up what you are trying to achieve…The other girls in the organization are great leaders. Each one has a leader inside of her. We girls are always the most active. We are more interested in politics and are always at the head of the organization."
In Latin America, that young women take leadership roles in an organization where boys are also members, is extraordinary. These girls fought for those spaces. And through their leadership, the organization has reached new heights.
In 2008, these kids changed the country’s constitution. Following the election of Bolivian President Evo Morales, the country wrote a new “Magna Carta” and the original draft prohibited children from working. The kids marched, lobbied assembly members and convinced the adults to outlaw child exploitation, rather than all child labor. Now, the Union is facing a backlash, as the government tries to write new labor laws that curtail this constitutional advance. So the kids are gearing up for another battle.
Meanwhile, just doing their jobs, they say, helps them reach their dreams—literally. Because without their small salaries to pay for their own school supplies, few of these kids would still be getting an education.
In Ana's case, she wants to be a business administrator, or an economist. Brígida says she’d like to be a nurse. Noemí wants to be an architect - or a doctor.
I’m not sure they realize that they’ve already accomplished more than most of us do in a lifetime. Through their struggle, they challenge one of the western world’s most basic principles—that child labor is wrong. They demand we rethink our conceptions of what makes a just society. They are slowly but surely, shifting the ground beneath our feet.
This series is part of an ongoing collaboration between WBEZ and the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women & Gender in the Arts & Media at Columbia College-Chicago, called Gender, Human Rights, Leadership and Media. The Institute develops projects with journalists, artists, human rights workers and activists to investigate global issues.
You can hear all of the stories from this week, as well as the interview we did with Jean Friedman-Rudovsky to kick off the series, here.