Section 7. Worker Rights
The law, including related regulations and statutory instruments, provides for the freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, and the right to strike. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. The constitution provides for protection of general and solidarity strikes and for the right of any working individual to join a union. In May 2019 the Supreme Court ruled to protect the right to strike but stipulated that a strike could not be indefinite. According to legal experts, this was in reaction to health-care workers threatening to strike for an indefinite amount of time. As a result of the ruling, health-care workers may strike but must organize themselves in shifts to avoid putting the general population at risk.
Workers may form a union in any private company of 20 or more employees, but the law requires that at least 50 percent of the workforce be in favor. The law requires that trade unions register as legal entities and obtain prior government authorization to establish a union and confirm its elected leadership, permits only one union per enterprise, and allows the government to dissolve unions by administrative fiat. The law also requires that members of union executive boards be Bolivian citizens by birth. The labor code prohibits most public employees from forming unions, including the military, police, and other public security forces. Some public-sector workers (including teachers, transportation workers, and health-care workers) were legally unionized and actively participated without penalty as members of the Bolivian Workers’ Confederation, the country’s chief trade union federation.
The National Labor Court handles complaints of antiunion discrimination, but rulings took one year or more to be issued. The court ruled in favor of discharged workers in some cases and required their reinstatement. Union leaders stated problems had often been resolved or were no longer relevant by the time the court ruled. The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws, and penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.
The ineffectiveness of labor courts and the lengthy time to resolve cases and complaints limited freedom of association. Moreover, the 20-worker threshold for forming a union proved an onerous restriction, since an estimated 72 percent of enterprises had fewer than 20 employees.
Labor inspectors may attend union meetings and monitor union activities. Collective bargaining and voluntary direct negotiations between employers and workers without government participation was common. Most collective bargaining agreements were restricted to addressing wages.
The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, yet they remained serious problems. Ministry of Labor officials were not effective in enforcement efforts or provision of services to victims of forced labor. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The ministry held various workshops to educate vulnerable workers of their rights, levied penalties against offending employers, and referred cases of suspected forced labor to the Ministry of Justice for prosecution.
Men, women, and children were victims of sex trafficking and forced labor in domestic service, mining, ranching, and agriculture. Indigenous populations were especially vulnerable to forced labor in the agriculture sector and to deceptive employment opportunities that may amount to forced labor in neighboring countries.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. Ministry of Labor inspectors are responsible for identifying situations of child labor and human trafficking for the purposes of forced child labor. When inspectors suspect such situations, they refer the cases to the municipal offices of the child and adolescent advocate for further investigation in coordination with the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The law states that work should not interfere with a child’s right to education and should not be dangerous or unhealthy. Dangerous and unhealthy work includes work in sugarcane and Brazil nut harvesting, mining, brick making, hospital cleaning, selling alcoholic beverages, and working after 10 p.m., among other conditions. The municipal offices of the child and adolescent advocate must answer a request for an underage work permit within 72 hours. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for authorizing work activity for adolescents older than 14 who work for a third-party employer. Municipal governments, through their respective offices of the child and adolescent advocates, are responsible for enforcing child labor laws, including laws pertaining to the minimum age and maximum hours for child workers, school completion requirements, and health and safety conditions for children in the workplace. The ministry is responsible for identifying such cases through inspections and referring them to the offices of the child and adolescent advocates.
The government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations, although Labor Ministry officials stated inspectors conducted investigations throughout the year. Ministry officials did not have statistics on the number of children they had removed from hazardous situations.
The ministry collaborated with the IDB to implement a program that identifies and employs unemployed parents who have children in the workforce. A ministry official stated that while there were varying reasons why children as young as 10 chose to work, one main reason was because their parents could not find steady employment. This program sought to secure jobs for underemployed parents on the condition their children stop working. The ministry also provided the parents’ salaries for the first three months to avoid burdening the businesses that provided employment.
Authorities did not provide detailed information on the penalties for violation of child labor laws or the effectiveness of such penalties, nor did courts prosecute individuals for violations of child labor law during the year, although ministry inspectors referred cases for prosecution.
Among the worst forms of child labor were instances of children working in brick production, hospital cleaning, domestic labor, transportation, and vending at night. In the agricultural sector, forced child labor was present in the production of Brazil nuts/chestnuts and sugarcane. Children were also subjected to hazardous work activities in the mining industry, as well as sex trafficking and other forms of commercial sexual exploitation.
Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .
Labor laws and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on race, sex, gender, disability, religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases, or social status. Penalties were not commensurate to laws related to civil rights, such as election interference. The government did not effectively enforce the law in all sectors, and discrimination with respect to employment and occupation occurred. Women in office and female politicians faced high levels of political violence and harassment. Civil society leaders reported credible instances of employment discrimination against indigenous peoples, women, Afro-Bolivians, persons with disabilities, and members of the LGBTI community. Employers charged with discriminatory practices must offer affected employees restitution, but no cases were reported.
Women in the informal sector were not protected by formal-sector labor laws, which afford maternity benefits, breast-feeding hours, permission to work fewer hours, and more holidays than their male counterparts. Critics contended these laws encouraged companies to give preference to men in hiring.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The monthly minimum wage was greater than the government’s official poverty income. The World Bank estimated that for fiscal year 2018, 35 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.
The law establishes a maximum workweek of 48 hours and limits the workday to eight hours for men. The law sets a 40-hour workweek for women, prohibits women from working at night, mandates rest periods, and requires premium pay for work beyond a standard workweek. The law stipulates a minimum of 15 days of annual leave. Penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud. The Ministry of Labor sets occupational health and safety (OSH) standards and monitors compliance. The law mandates that the standards apply uniformly to all industries and sectors. The interim government did not effectively enforce the law.
The Ministry of Labor’s Bureau of Occupational Safety has responsibility for the protection of workers’ health and safety, but penalties for violations of OSH laws were not commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence. The number of inspectors was insufficient to provide effective workplace inspection. Ministry officials confirmed that labor inspection teams had been severely limited by COVID-19 and the ensuing restrictions that began in March. The Municipal Offices of Children and Adolescents also completely closed during the quarantine, so prosecutions against child labor offenders largely stopped until COVID-19 movement restrictions eased in September. Five mobile labor inspection teams resumed activities in late September, averaging 20 inspections per week. The ministry intended to have 24 total mobile inspection teams in operation in the coming months. While the number of labor inspectors dropped from 102 to 71, all were trained in identifying child labor and trafficking cases, although they also performed routine labor inspections.
A national tripartite committee of business, labor, and government representatives is responsible for monitoring and improving OSH standards and enforcement. The Ministry of Labor maintained offices for worker inquiries, complaints, and reports of unfair labor practices and unsafe working conditions, but it was unclear if the offices were effective in regulating working conditions.
The law prohibits dismissing employees for removing themselves from work conditions they deem hazardous and provides for the Ministry of Labor to mandate they be rehired following an inspection.
Workers in informal part-time and hourly jobs did not have labor protections. Many companies and businesses preferred workers hired on an hourly or part-time basis to avoid paying required maternity and pension benefits. According to labor law experts, the informal sector comprised approximately 65 to 75 percent of the economy. They claimed labor regulations meant to protect employees actually promoted the large informal sector because the regulations reportedly resulted in employers not hiring full-time employees due to the higher costs their employment entailed.
Civil society leaders and media reported Chinese companies employed workers in substandard conditions. NGOs documented the growing role of Chinese companies, which expanded their presence in the mining, hydrocarbon, and infrastructure sectors during the prior 10 years. There were also allegations that Chinese companies brought in Chinese prisoners to work in the country in exchange for their eventual freedom.
A July 2019 report by the Bolivian Center for Study of Labor and Agrarian Development (CEDLA) analyzed labor complaints against Chinese companies from 2015 to 2019 and denounced the “deplorable behavior of Chinese companies and their impact on the exercise of labor rights and the quality of work.” The report stated the most recurrent complaints against Chinese companies included physical or mental mistreatment, lack of industrial safety (uniforms and job tools), and lack of social security (medical insurance). Chinese state-owned hydropower and construction company Sinohydro was the worst offender, with 153 formal worker complaints during this five-year period. The Sinohydro-led construction of the Ivirgarzama-Ichilo highway (Santa Cruz to Cochabama Departments) completed in 2018 accounted for almost half of the total complaints. During four years of work, the project led to 53 labor complaints, seven worker strikes, one hunger strike, and seven conflicts between workers and managers.
The 2019 CEDLA report, which analyzed official data and complaints from various state entities, including the Bolivian Highway Administration; Ministry of Public Works; the Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Welfare; and the Ombudsman’s Office, also highlighted the record of the China Railway Construction Corporation, with 87 complaints from the project building the highway from Rurrenabaque to Riberalta, which was the most “conflicted project” in the entire country. The report described a series of unfair labor practices, including forcing workers to sign unfair contracts with clauses stipulating that they would be fired if they complained to the press. Since 2015 there were 39 recorded strikes against Chinese companies, and of the 17 strikes against Sinohydro, the company declared six of them “illegal,” despite the fact that only the Ministry of Labor has the right to determine the legality of strikes. In addition to the labor rights complaints, the report detailed several persistent environmental complaints, including the contamination of rivers, deforestation, illegal hunting and extermination of jaguars, and trafficking in jaguar fangs.