To Eradicate or to Legalize? Child Labor Debates and ILO Convention 182 in Bolivia

By Fontana, Lorenza B.; Grugel, Jean | Global Governance, January-March 2015 | Go to article overview

To Eradicate or to Legalize? Child Labor Debates and ILO Convention 182 in Bolivia


Fontana, Lorenza B., Grugel, Jean, Global Governance


International human rights agreements promote rights-based norms as a guide for policymaking. But the appropriateness and legitimacy of these norms is sometimes questioned in local contexts, where they can generate disagreement as to their meaning and implementation. Convention 182 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) led to a global commitment to eliminate the worst forms of child labor, but the agreement has been subject to intense criticism, especially in societies where child labor is prevalent such as Bolivia. This article sheds light on the complex impact of global rights-based norms in local contexts and reminds us that civil society is always a heterogeneous and political space of action. This article also traces the complex debate on eradication versus legalization of child labor within Bolivia. Keywords: human rights, child labor, Bolivia, international norms.

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HOWEVER WELL INTENTIONED, INTERNATIONAL RIGHTS AGREEMENTS DO NOT always lead to changes in practices and policies and do not always resonate in local contexts. (1) Nonetheless, if they can be made salient through processes of translation, there is evidence that local civil society actors can use the legitimacy attaching to an international norm to good effect. (2) This happens especially when norms are interpreted in ways that speak directly to local rights abuses and challenges, (3) or when they generate a consensus among civil society and open up a "group-specific opportunity" for mobilization. (4) What happens, however, when there are divisions locally about the rightness or appropriateness of an international norm? In these cases, it may be that the norm or convention can intensify existing disagreements within civil society. Furthermore, divisions about the rightness of the norm may be more difficult to avoid when the norm itself is directive. We focus in this article on a case where a widely agreed on international norm on child labor, codified in Convention 182 of the ILO, is generating intense disagreement within both civil society and the state.

Bolivia has one of highest rates of working children and adolescents, and child labor is on the agenda of civil society and the government. But ratification of Convention 182 has contributed to entrenching views within civil society at the polarized extremes--especially at the eradication end of the eradication-legalization spectrum--rather than generating consensus or opening up opportunities for shared advocacy. Convention 182 seems to have deepened, not bridged, ideological differences. And for civil and political actors, the importance of being on what they see as the "right" side of the debate has trumped the option of negotiation, despite the fact that cooperation and the design of a more effective regulatory framework on children and work could have significant benefits for working children.

The article is structured as follows. In the first section, we provide an overview on international norms and the challenges of local implementation in general and child labor-related norms in particular. We then proceed to a discussion of the reception of ILO Convention 182 in Bolivia, and explore the interplay between norm specificity and the profound and preexisting divisions within Bolivian civil and political society on child labor. We are intrigued in particular by how strongly key civil society actors hold fast to their views, even when there is a potential middle ground between the two positions that is consistent with ILO norms and potentially beneficial to child workers. In the final section, we discuss the wider implications of this case study.

A Note on the Case Study

Bolivia is an important case in which to explore the domestic impact of international child labor norms for three reasons. First, the high numbers of children active in the labor force mean that international norms about children's work are relevant domestically. …

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