Governing with the people: some examples from Bolivia

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Bolivia's controversial new child labour law allows children under the age of 14 to work, but only in “exceptional circumstances”.

By Federico Fuentes

July 30, 2014 -- Bolivia Rising, an earlier version of this article was first published on the new teleSUR English website; it is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- When Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia in 2005, he promised to “govern by obeying the people”. The recent approval by the Plurinational Assembly of laws dealing with mining and children’s rights are two examples of the challenges and benefits of this radical approach to governing.

Breaking with the conception that legislating should be confined to the four walls of parliament, the Bolivian government has made repeated efforts to involve broad sections of society in rewriting the rules of the country.

The first, and most important, step taken in this regard was the convocation of a constituent assembly in which elected delegates, together with representatives of the country’s powerful social movements and other civil society groups, drew up a new constitution.

The new charter was subsequently approved by a large majority in the 2009 referendum, despite the often-violent resistance campaign waged by right-wing opposition groups.

Since then, the government has sought to convert some of the novel ideas in the constitution – such as granting rights to Mother Earth, indigenous autonomy and the nationalisation of natural resources – into enforceable laws.

Seeking to legislate both with the people and for the people, the government has paid particular attention to debating new laws with those sectors that would be most directly affected by them.

The presence of highly combative social movements steeped in the knowledge that what has previously been taken away from them in parliament can and has been won back on the streets, has made this process somewhat volatile at times.

Yet, rather than fear street mobilisations, the current Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government has come to view them as “creative tensions” within the revolutionary process underway in this small Andean nation.

Vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera explains that tensions between those sectors leading the process of change are inevitable, but adds they can be “creative because they have the potential to help drive forward the course of the revolution itself”.

Mining law

After three years of intense debate Bolivia’s parliament approved a new mining law in late May.

Under neoliberalism, tumbling global mineral prices were used to justify the privatisation of Bolivia’s entire mining sector.

Through this process the state mining company COMIBOL was dismembered, close to 30,000 miners where left without a job, and the cooperative miners sector (of which today there are some 110,000, representing 85% of the mining workforce) gradually became a powerful political force.

The new law seeks to bring legislation in line with the new constitution, according to which minerals are the property of the Bolivian people and to be administered by the state, “in the interest of the collective”.

The new law also builds upon the series of actions taken to date by the government in the mining sector. These include the nationalisation of mineral deposits and tin smelters, the renegotiation of contracts to ensure increased state control and revenues, and steps towards metal processing and industrialisation.

John Crabtree and Ann Chaplin write that the government’s policies have helped resuscitate COMIBOL, the state mining company, “as a key planner in the sector, as the owner of important subsoil resources, as a partner with a number of private sector concerns, as promoter of industrialisation, and as a producer in its own right”.

Most importantly, the new law has been heavily shaped by debate – at times violent – between different sectors within the mining workforce and indigenous communities affected by mining operations.

While discussions may have started at meetings inside the ministry of mining, the more conflictive issues were generally resolved in the mines or on the streets.

In response, the government has largely sought to facilitate dialogue among and between miners and affected indigenous communities, as a necessary precondition for overcoming tension and advancing their mutual aims.

Overall, the MAS government has sought to favour nationalisation and industrialisation, while acknowledging that some concessions have had to be made to the powerful cooperative sector.

An example of this was the Colquiri mine dispute in May-June 2012. What began as a mine occupation by a local mining cooperative quickly took on a national dimension when the Trade Union Federation of Mineworkers of Bolivia (FSTMB) and the National Federation of Cooperative Miners (FENCOMIN) took up the cause of their respective local affiliates (the former demanded the expulsion of the occupiers, who were affiliated to the latter).

In an attempt to reconcile the warring factions, the government offered to nationalise the mine as a way to secure the jobs of the existing mineworkers and offer employment to the occupiers. The government also stated it was willing to grant the cooperative access to certain mineral veins.

While trade unions representing private mineworkers initially opposed the deal, believing it could threaten the jobs of its members elsewhere, they soon came onboard.

On the other hand, the local cooperative refused the offer, and instead signed a deal with the private mine owner, Glencore, that would see them work part of the mine in return for handing over what they extracted back to the company.

With support for nationalisation growing among the mineworkers, local communities and even some cooperative miners, the government finally ordered COMIBOL to take complete control over operations at Colquiri, while granting the 26 de Febrero cooperative access to the Rosario vein. In return, the cooperative had to sell what it extracted to COMIBOL and was barred from associating with transnational corporations.

This same issue of mining cooperatives partnering with private companies was also the spark behind violent protests that rocked the country just as the law was reaching the final stages of approval.

Under the new law, private companies can no longer register minerals as their property, and those with pre-existing contracts have to sign new ones in line with the new tax regime, which will see the state collect most of the sector’s profits.

The initial draft also allowed cooperatives to freely sign contracts with the private sector.

Once the government presented its draft version of the law, agreed to by all sections of the mining workforce, parliamentarians sought to remove this right from cooperatives.

MAS deputy Jaime Medrano explained that allowing this would have been “unconstitutional”, as “the state cannot turn over mineral-rich areas for companies to commercialise as private property”. While the constitution allowed for the cooperative sector to sign mixed contracts with private companies, he noted that this required approval from the state.

In response, cooperative miners organised large demonstrations that saw most of the country’s main roadways blockaded and 43 police officers taken hostage.

The ensuing public debate led to the revelation that over 40 cooperative-company joint contracts were already in existence, which according to Kirsten Francescone, once again brought into sharp relief the negative role played by mining companies in the looting of the country’s natural wealth.

Through this process, the government was able to win support, including from cooperative miners, for the now amended version of the law (which denies cooperatives the right to sign contracts with private companies without prior approval from the state).

This ensured that the final draft was in line with the constitution’s mandate of maintaining sovereignty over the country’s mineral wealth.

Child labour

Debate over the recently approved law regarding the rights of children and adolescents has gone well beyond Bolivia’s borders, with the International Labor Organization (ILO) criticising it for legalising child labour from the age of 10.

Despite previous legislation banning all work for those under 14, an estimated 850,000 children and adolescents currently work in Bolivia. Given the high levels of poverty, many have to work, mainly for themselves on the streets as shoe shiners or with their parents on street stalls or farms, to help their families survive.

Much of the media has ignored the fact that the new law initially proposed increasing the legal working age from 14 to 16 years of age.

It was only after sustained protests (that gained media attention and public sympathy after they were repressed by police), that a new draft was developed between parliamentarians and child-worker organisations.

MAS deputy Javier Zavaleta acknowledged that it was “a very difficult debate” because these groups “strive for ideals that are sometimes difficult to achieve”. “We met with them and they are intelligent children who understood our reasons and knew that if they could choose, they would not be working”, he added.

The final version allows children under the age of 14 to work, but only in “exceptional circumstances”. From the age of 10, children can work for themselves, but not be employed by another person. From 12 onwards, children who have the written permission of the parents can work for others, although they are not allowed to work certain jobs, particularly those requiring a lot of physical strength.

In an important step forward, the law states child workers must have the same rights and protections as other workers, including receiving at least the minimum wage and ensuring time is set aside for all child and adolescent workers to have their educational needs met. In general, the new law seeks to ensure that their rights are protected, rather than criminalise or force underground those who need to work to help their families.

“We are happy with the new approval of the new law”, said Edwin Roman Davalos, a representative of UNATSBO, the Bolivian Union of Child and Adolescent Workers, “because they listened to us, the authorities, and the parliamentarians saw our reality”.

He added that the new law had been approved “thanks to the struggles that we have waged for some time now on the streets, and to our president, Evo Morales, who listened to us”.

In response to questions raised about the new law and its contravention of the ILO convention on child labour, Rodrigo Medrano, also from UNATSBO said: “Those are conventions that are drawn up in the UN or the ILO, but I believe that those conventions are signed without having spent much time here in Bolivia.”

“This is a law that represents a just equilibrium between reality and rights, rights and international conventions”, said Garcia Linera. It could have been “easy to pass a law that corresponded to international conventions”, he added “but which would not have been complied with, it would not have been implemented”.

Instead, Garcia Linera explained, we chose to draft “a law that takes as its starting point what we have today and that charts out a realistic and viable path for changing the working situation of children, that goes beyond international conventions”.

Challenges and benefits

Both new laws, and the process of their approval, reveal the challenges and benefits of legislating with the people. In both case, the practice of “governing by obeying” facilitated societal-wide discussions that helped both the government and social movements learn from each other and find common ground for advancing change.

In terms of the mining law, a consensus was only possible after all those sectors directly affected by the new law had faced off against each other and revealed to the wider public what was at stake.

Throughout the process, the government was able to consistently explain its position in defence of nationalisation, thereby win the necessary support to enact the new law.

At the same time, the law on children and adolescent rights showed how without direct and regular contact with the reality on the ground, even parliamentarians with the best intentions can get it wrong.

Without doubt a law banning work for those under the age of 14 (or even 16 as initially proposed) would have gained accolades from institutions such as the ILO. However, it would have done little to improve the situation of those hundreds of thousands of children already working illegally.

Instead, by listening to those most directly affected, parliament was ultimately able to pass a law that both attempted to deal with this reality while seeking to change it for the better.

Both examples also show that no matter how progressive a government maybe, only pressure and support from below can ensure it says on track. By directly involving those most affected in the process of legislating, the government can also ensure the best legislative outcome.

This has meant at times that the government has had to contend with competing social movements mobilising against the government and each other.

For Garcia Linera, this is more a benefit than a challenge. He said, “The struggle is our nourishment, our peace, not our nightmare. Absolute tranquility scares us. The opposition thinks that the struggle will tire us out; instead, it nourishes us.”

Similarly, a Bolivian vice-minister once commented that having the people protesting on the streets makes it so much harder to govern, but that at the same time he hoped they never leave the streets.