Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Child Labor

Today I had the chance to visit the owner of a small pasta factory in a town about an hour outside of Cochabamba.

We drove out of town, past small, earth-colored homes set upon dun brown hills. The starkness and lack of color reminded me of La Paz. We moved into an arid landscape. A green cactus lined the roads. My companion, Reynaldo, said it’s edible and delicious. We passed a polluted, but beautiful lake, lined with cafes and a hotel overlooking the mountainous panorama. A lot of new homes were being constructed along the roadside. These houses would look out over arid plains and towards the brown mountain ridges that rose in the distance. Reynaldo said the construction is spurred by remittances from Spain – emigrants sending money back to families to build new homes.

The pasta factory is owned by a 47-year-old man who has a university student as his “concubine.” They’ve been dating since 2000, but just starting living together six months ago. They already have two children.

“We were planning to get married this year,” Wilson said, “but she needs to finish her studies first.”

“Can one not study and get married at the same time?” I asked Reynaldo.

“It’s probably that he hasn’t made up his mind yet,” Reynaldo said. “If he marries her, she’ll own half of the business and he’s probably nervous about giving up any ownership.”

Wilson showed himself to be a very distrustful, jealous and avaricious man. He has a store, where he could sell his product. But it’s only open once a week because he doesn’t have time to manage both the factory and the store.

“Can’t you hire an employee to run it for you in your absence?” I asked him.

“No, you can’t trust anyone here. When people sell large quantities and they are taking in thousands of dollars, they begin to be careless and think that they can take some of that money. The owner across the street had an employee run off with $8,000. Then they use the money to emigrate to Spain or the U.S., so it’s really hard to do anything about it.”

But the store across the street works daily and the owner was not on site today. Clearly he makes enough of a profit that it’s still in his interest to operate, even with an occasional loss.

“Do you not have any family members or people you trust who you could hire?” Usually relatives can recommend a distant relative or friend that can be relied on. I myself hired someone who entered and cleaned my apartment in my absence, and had full access to all my belongings. I don’t believe that reliable workers don’t exist in Bolivia.

“No,” he said. “You can’t trust anybody.” He doesn’t even trust his family to touch any money, although they live on the factory site. If a customer wants to buy some noodles, they call him and he drives the hour there to make the sale himself.

I later asked Reynaldo, “If he were to pay someone an attractive salary, such as $200 a month, do you think they’d work honestly?”

“Yes,” Reynaldo said.

When we arrived at the site of the factory and his family’s home, we were greeted by giant guard dogs. “If we didn’t have these, the place would be overrun by thieves,” his mother said. She was an elderly woman, with a crooked row of gold teeth on the bottom and none on top. She wore a round hat and a worn blouse, apron and skirt over her heavyset body.

We weren’t allowed to see the factory itself. “Wilson is jealous and doesn’t let anybody at all go in there,” his sister said.

We did however see his employees, a group of young boys, carrying 50 kg bags of noodles from a porch into a storehouse. They were overseen by the elderly mother and by a handicapped brother. Both of them sat guard to make sure they didn’t steal anything.

“How old are they?” I asked the sister.

Her daughter, no more than 10 herself, immediately said, “18.”

They didn’t look it. I asked about the small one.

“One of them is 18, another 20, another 23,” the sister said.

I later approached the two smaller ones and asked their ages. One didn’t speak Spanish, but I found out they were 13 and 14. They earned 500 bolivianos (about $60) per month.

These boys live on the factory premises and seem to have nothing to look forward to professionally in life. I left the factory and the home with a terrible feeling. I’ve met plenty of Bolivians (and Kyrgyz) who earn thousands of dollars a month, yet see nothing wrong with paying their workers a pittance. And then they complain about not being able to trust their workers not to steal. But this was the first time I’d seen children and it really upset me.

Reynaldo and our driver, said the situation was pretty normal. “Those boys are just carting bags,” the driver said. “I’ve seen children forced into much more difficult and dangerous work.”

He said that while yes, the owner should be paying more (the minimum wage in bolivia is 800 bolivianos ($100) per month), one needed to think of what the alternative for the boys would be. “These kids come to town from the countryside to seek work. Many times they are sent by their parents. Their parents have a ton of kids and can’t maintain them. So it’s not so much a question of exploitation as survival.”

Then he relented, admitting that the need for survival created a situation in which people could easily be exploited. “Many people exploit these populations. Because they are so unsophisticated. They don’t know anything about their rights. The employers know that these people will never go complain to a labor office about their rights.”

On the drive back to Cochabamba, we passed a laguna on the edge of town, with a running/biking path around it. Seemed like a nice place for the community. But according to them, it’s not.

“All the drug addicts hang out around here,” they said. “There have been all kinds of violent crimes – not just robberies, but also rapes and even murders.”

Maria suggested I not visit the giant white statue of Christ on a nearby hilltop, even though it’s the tallest in the world. The cable car is under repair and it’s dangerous to walk, both because of feral dogs and because the isolation makes it a target for robbery.

In a book I’m reading by Isabel Allende, she quotes an InterAmerican Development Bank report as saying that Latin America is the second most violent area in the world, after Africa. My taxi driver yesterday claimed that Hispanic men in the U.S. could act aggressively because they are separated from their families – that it’s the spouse and children that help control the aggression. Yet Allende writes of widespread domestic violence. Where does it originate from? How can it be eliminated? Finding answers to such questions would make the world an immeasurably better place.

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