"I started working when I was nine, and I've done everything, shining shoes, bus driver's assistant, selling. I've gone through most of the jobs common for child and adolescent workers."
It’s a story not dissimilar to ones told by my Grandma, who in Canada in 1928 at the age of 5 lost her father and started work as a maid to help support her mom and siblings.
But what’s especially upsetting is that this isn’t a story about the ‘20s, it’s the reality today; the quote comes straight from the mouth of Rodrigo Medrano Calle, a 14 year old from Bolivia.
Rodrigo is a labor union leader, and according to The Guardian, leads the largest union of child laborers in the world -- the Bolivian Union of Child and Adolescent Workers. Rodrigo now sells chewing gum and cigarettes in bars at weekends.
The Guardian wrote: “Rodrigo believes that instead of attempting to end many forms of child and adolescent work, the goal should be ending exploitation by creating part-time, safe and better paying jobs for young people who want them. ‘Why should there be a minimum age if the work is voluntary?’ he asked. ‘The work of a child or adolescent is not bad – it helps society, it helps a family, and it helps us grow as people.’”
As I read the article, I felt quite torn. On the one hand, I admire his leadership, and frankly I think it’s pretty damn cool that these kids, who have very little power or influence, are demanding better of their government and employers. They understand the economic value of their work and are leveraging that to call for change.
But on the other hand, I struggle to get excited about improving the conditions in which children work. Yes, it’s great that these kids are getting organized, but it is appalling that they are making bricks, selling cigarettes, shining shoes, and having sex to get by and support their families.
Child labor is undoubtedly a complex issue. While some people want to see it abolished in its entirety, others believe that children working can be good for the kids, their families, and the economy, particularly if better regulated.
I’ve always steered clear of brands that have been tied to child labor (and I have no intention of changing that), yet I know this doesn’t address the complexity of the issue at hand. I wonder what my Grandma would think about it? What’s your take on the issue?