Child Labor Policy in Ecuador: New Approach

˙ PREAL Blog

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The Education Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, through its website PREAL Blog, opens its doors to youth interested in education and human development issues in Latin America, and offers them a space where they can share their ideas, research, and policy recommendations. In this edition, David Ehle (MA in International Development) examines the National Plan for the Prevention and Eradication of Child Labor in Ecuador (PETI) and provides policy recommendations.

Introduction

In the last several years, the government of Ecuador has made a concerted effort to eradicate child labor. Evidence suggests that progress has been made; however, the efforts have been met with resistance, not by factory and plantation owners who want to exploit child labor, but by working children themselves. The following analysis will examine the Plan Nacional para la Prevención y Erradicación Progresiva del Trabajo Infantil en el Ecuador (PETI), its strengths, its weaknesses, and recommendations for the future.

Child Labor in Ecuador

Ecuador has the highest rate of child labor in Latin America. Official figures from 2006 estimate that 11% of children 5-17 years old were economically active[i]. Official figures for 2012 suggest that the incidence of child labor has been reduced to 8.56% of children. However, an independent study in 2009 estimates this figure to be as high as 39%[ii]. This discrepancy suggests a serious deficiency in official measurement strategies that should be corrected.[iii]

What Has Been Done?

Efforts to combat child labor in Ecuador have included legislative action and legal penalties for those who perpetuate it. Programs such as the Bono de Desarrollo Humano (BDH), an unconditional cash transfer, have been used to incentivize families to not send their children to work.

Legislation forbidding child labor and imposing penalties for those who perpetuate it are in line with international standards. However, a number of civil society organizations that work with working children have been fighting against these policies, arguing that they are detrimental to the families of working children. A representative of ECUVIFATS (Ecuador Virtudes y Fortalezas de Niños, Niñas y Adolescentes Trabajadores, a local branch of the regional union of child workers Movimiento Latinoamericano y del Caribe de Niños, Niñas y Adolescentes Trabajadores, MOLACNATS) recently argued that the policies in place do not take into account the needs of the poorest sectors of society[iv].

For many children, working is an economic necessity. Currently, the Dirección Nacional de Policia Especializada Para Niños, Niñas y Adolescentes (DINAPEN) enforces child labor policies by fining or even imprisoning parents who send their children to work. In cases where such enforcement is successful at preventing children from working, they and their siblings face decreased welfare, as their families lose a source of income.

Due to this need for supplemental income, many who work with child workers fear that the increased enforcement will lead some children who currently work in public spaces selling candy, shining shoes, or doing other light work to start working at night, or in more hidden sectors[v]. This would expose them to more dangers and risks than they currently face.

The Bono de Desarrollo Humano led to decreased incidence of child labor among recipient families. However one study showed that this effect was mostly due to delayed entry into the workforce, and had little effect on families whose children were already economically active[vi]. Furthermore, the cash transfer is a mere $15 per month, much lower than the median income for a child in employment in Ecuador, approximately $80/month[vii].

Problems with Implementation

The PETI makes the distinction between children who are economically active and children who are exploited or working in dangerous conditions. In practice, however, DINAPEN and other enforcing agencies have generalized all child workers into a single category. One of the biggest concerns about child labor is that it interferes with a child’s development and education. Nevertheless, one study suggests that children who do light work ten hours per week or less actually have higher enrolment rates than children who do not work, probably because their income gives them more opportunity to pay for transportation, books, etc.[viii]

While officially the PETI calls for a targeted effort to fight dangerous and exploitative work, and includes provisions for active participation of civil society organizations that work with children, in practice it has not been implemented that way. All working children are at risk of legal penalties, and major civil society organizations, including the child workers’ union, ECUVIFATS, have not been given appropriate attention.

Recommendations

1. The state must shift its policy focus towards the root causes of the problem

Few people would argue that child labor should not be eradicated. However, while we can all agree on the ends, the means need modification. Current policy focuses far too much on legal consequences for working children, their parents, and those that would exploit them. Instead, policy should be focused on providing greater economic opportunities for families so that they do not feel economic pressure to send their children to work. The very mindset of policymakers should shift from a stance that “No child should work” to one in which “No child should have to work”.

2. The state must understand the issue of child labor more thoroughly

There are huge discrepancies between official figures and those produced by independent studies. Furthermore the Encuesta Nacional de Trabajo Infantil presents only very aggregated data, with no distinctions in number of hours worked or type of work. The survey only tells if a child works or not, and some socioeconomic indicators. All indicators studied in the survey are quantitative in nature. It is essential that the government carries out a more comprehensive study, with both quantitative and qualitative data, to understand the root causes of child labor, and potential solutions. Data should be disaggregated by sector, number of hours worked, and poverty level, among other factors. 

3. Policies must be more specific and more strictly implemented

The PETI plan specifically targets exploitative and dangerous work performed by children. Many children in Ecuador work in mines or on large plantations. This kind of exploitation is a crime that must be eliminated immediately. However, thousands of children in Ecuador perform light work in family owned businesses or selling their own wares for a few hours a week. The PETI plan does not aim to eradicate this form of work, nor do the official policies of international organizations such as ILO or UNICEF.

In practice, however, many children and their parents have faced fines and even time in prison for such activities, pushing them further into poverty. The children who perform light work should be allowed to do so, provided that they are attending school, as preventing them from doing so would reduce household welfare. State policy should focus on expanding social safety nets and economic opportunities for families, as discussed below. But until they do, families must be allowed to provide for their own welfare.

4. The state must expand the social safety nets

The BDH has been effective in preventing child labor in many households, but coverage is still fairly low and the size of the transfer is too small to have an effect on the poorest households. The amount of the transfer should be increased and graduated, so that the families that are most in need receive a greater transfer. Other programs, such as technical training and employment programs for adults, can improve household welfare, therefore decreasing the likelihood that a child will be sent to work. The state should also consider such programs as subsidies or in-kind transfers to reduce the costs of sending children to school.

5. The state must increase investment in education

Traditional thought has been that rising incomes will eventually stamp out child labor. Recent studies have shown that this is not necessarily true, as many working children and their parents have cited deficiencies in the education system as a reason for the children to work[ix]. The Ecuadorian government has made significant progress in increasing investment and reforming the education system in recent years. This progress must be continued and strengthened, especially in remote rural areas where child labor is most prevalent.

In most developing countries, the transition from primary to secondary school is the most pivotal moment where many youth leave education behind and join the workforce full time. Impoverished youth especially see little profit in continuing with school when they could be making an income instead. The state should consider incorporating apprenticeships and technical skills courses into the education system in order to make secondary school more relevant for young people.

6. Increase participation from civil society organizations

ECUVIFATS is active in fighting for the rights of child workers, including the right to work. Other NGOs and religious organizations such as the Centro del Muchacho Trabajador, Centro Integral de la Niñez y Adolescencia, and Proyecto Salesiano, work directly with working children and their families. Indigenous groups are also affected by child labor policies, as they often interfere with traditional values of family work and artisanal production. These organizations are the most in touch with the realities of child workers in the country and their voices should be heard. Any future policy formation should consult with these organizations. Additionally, mechanisms should be in place for these organizations to file complaints if it is found that policies are being implemented incorrectly.

Conclusion

The Ecuadorian government has made important efforts to eradicate child labor. Children who work tend to earn less as adults, and are therefore more likely to feel economic pressure to send their own children to work. Child labor should be eradicated if we are ever to create an equitable society without poverty. However, the means by which we accomplish this end must be both fair and effective. Current policy is neither, due to improper implementation of regulations and limited scope. Child workers and their families are already the poorest and the most vulnerable. No policy should be implemented without the existence of safeguards to shield them against the negative effects and economic upheaval they may face. The recommendations presented here should serve to correct deficiencies in implementation and expand interventions to attack the root causes of child labor so we can establish a more equitable society free of poverty.

[i] Comité Nacional Para la Erradicación Progresiva del Trabajo Infantil (CONEPTI). “Plan Nacional Para la Prevención y Erradicación del Trabajo Infantil 2008-2013”. (2007)

[ii] Peter F. Orazem, Guilherme Sedlacek and Zafiris Tzannatos, “Introduction: Child Labor and Education In Latin America,” in Child Labor and Education in Latin America: an Economic Perspective. Ed. Peter F. Orazem, Guilherme Sedlacek and Zafiris Tzannatos, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) p. 3-20

[iii] Dirección de Estadísticas Sociodemográficas (DIES), Gobierno de la República del Ecuador, “National Child Labor Survey (ENTI),” (2013)

[iv] René Unda Lara, Daniel Llanos Erazo and Luis Herrera Montero, Espacios de Socialización de Niños, Niñas y Adolescentes en el Centro del Muchacho Trabajador. (Quito: Universidad Politécnica Salesiana, 2014)

[v] Ibid

[vi] Eric V. Edmonds and Norbert Schady, “Poverty Alleviation and Child Labor,” Working Paper 15245 (Cambridge: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2009)

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Mauricio García-Morena. “Child Work and Education In Ecuador,” in Child Work and Education: Five Case Studies from Latin America, ed. María Cristina Salazar and Walter Alarcón Glasinovich. (UNICEF 1998) p. 66-102

[ix] María Cristina Salazar. “Child Work and Education in Latin America,” in Child Work and Education: Five Case Studies from Latin America, ed. María Cristina Salazar and Walter Alarcón Glasinovich. (UNICEF 1998) p. 1-20