Bolivia is a constitutional, multiparty republic with an elected president and a bicameral legislature. On October 18, Luis Alberto Arce Catacora, candidate for the Movement Toward Socialism Party, won a presidential election with 55 percent of the vote. His closest opponent, Citizen Community coalition candidate Carlos Diego Mesa Gisbert, won 28.8 percent. International electoral observation missions and domestic electoral observation organizations characterized the elections as free, fair, and transparent.
The national police, under the Ministry of Government’s authority, have primary responsibility for law enforcement and the maintenance of order within the country, but the Armed Forces, which report to the Ministry of Defense, may be called to help in critical situations. Immigration officials report to the Ministry of Government, and police and military share responsibilities for border enforcement. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; serious problems concerning judicial independence; restrictions on free expression, the press, and other media, including violence against journalists by state security forces and censorship; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and use of child labor.
The government took steps in some cases to prosecute members of the security services and other government officials who committed abuses, but inconsistent application of the law and a dysfunctional judiciary led to impunity.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the year.
The Institute of Forensic Investigations recorded 30 persons killed from October 20 to November 15, 2019, in the context of the postelectoral crisis. The death toll was corroborated by Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Of these 30 deaths, OHCHR and forensic reports indicated nine persons were killed and more than 100 injured during demonstrations in Sacaba, Cochabamba Department, on November 15, 2019, and another 10 were killed and 30 injured during protests near the Senkata gas facility in El Alto, La Paz Department, on November 19, 2019.
Regarding the violent disturbances that occurred in the postelectoral period in October-November 2019, an August OHCHR report cited Institute of Forensic Investigation reporting that the use of lethal ammunition led to deaths and injuries during protests in Sacaba and Senkata. The OHCHR report also highlighted there were no reports of security forces being killed or wounded by gunfire during these same protests, although Ministry of Justice officials stated a number of security forces were wounded during the Sacaba incident. A December 2019 preliminary report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated the injury patterns in both cases “point strongly to extrajudicial killing practices.” Government authorities denied security forces were responsible for these deaths, claiming the protesters used their own firearms and that some calibers of the bullets found in victims’ corpses did not correspond to standard ammunition issued to police or armed forces. In a February interview with Human Rights Watch, then minister of government Arturo Murillo claimed leaders of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) Party killed their party’s own supporters in Sacaba and Senkata, referencing the forensic reports that allegedly found bullets in victims that were inconsistent with the caliber used by security forces. The August OHCHR report cited forensic reports indicating authorities were unable to recover the vast majority of bullets that killed and injured protesters in the two incidents and that authorities had not conducted any formal assessment of the weapons carried by security forces during those operations. Government officials stated the use of force by security forces was proportional to the protesters’ level of violence. The officials indicated protesters had homemade weapons and explosive material and that they intended to cause an explosion at the gas installation the armed forces were guarding in Senkata. The OHCHR also reported accounts of the events from authorities, victims, and witnesses revealed inconsistencies that needed to be investigated.
A September Human Rights Watch report indicated other persons died in subsequent clashes between pro-Morales supporters and their opponents, including two men allegedly killed by Morales supporters in Montero, Santa Cruz Department. According to local media, two police officers were also killed in the postelection violence. In November 2019 police sergeant Juan Alarcon Parra died of injuries after allegedly being beaten by a mob, and Lieutenant Coronel Heybar Alarcon died in a motorcycle accident allegedly after being attacked by protesters.
In December 2019 the IACHR announced it had signed an agreement with the transitional government to create a mechanism to support the investigation of acts of violence and human rights abuses that took place between September and December 2019. Subsequently, an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) was created by the IACHR with the agreement of the transitional government to investigate the events for a period of six months, which could be extended by agreement of the parties for as long as necessary to fulfill its mission.
On November 23, the Arce government and the IACHR signed a protocol agreement during a public ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to install the five-member GIEI and officially begin the investigation into the acts of violence that occurred between September and December 2019. The group of international human rights experts is scheduled to conduct meetings with victims, witnesses, government authorities, and civil society. The government authorized the group to have access to police and military records to conduct an independent and impartial investigation of the acts of violence surrounding the October 2019 general election.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: On October 18, MAS candidate Luis Arce won the election for president with 55 percent of the vote. His closest opponent, Citizen Community candidate Carlos Mesa, won 28.8 percent of the vote. The elections were peaceful, and Mesa conceded soon after the release of the preliminary vote tabulations. International electoral observation missions and domestic electoral observation organizations characterized the elections as free, fair, and transparent. On November 8, Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca were sworn in as president and vice president, along with the 36 newly elected members of the Senate and 130 members of the Chamber of Deputies.
After negotiations in November 2019 produced the framework for a new electoral process, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) set the initial date for general elections on May 3. As the prospects for that date waned due to a national quarantine and COVID-19 fears, in March the TSE, in consultation with political parties and the National Assembly (ALP), postponed the elections from the May 3 date without announcing a date. After the MAS sought to force elections by early August, a timeframe to which the TSE never agreed, on June 2, the TSE again negotiated an agreement with most parties to move the date to September 6. Soon afterward, the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic became more apparent, with the collapse of health-care system’s ability to handle patients and several high-profile deaths. On July 23, the TSE announced that it was postponing national elections for the second time to October 18, with a second-round presidential runoff election to be held on November 29, if necessary. Marking a first, the TSE made its decision without the assent of the National Assembly (ALP), asserting its authority to do so as a fourth and coequal branch of government. This decision marked the third time an election date had been set since the annulled, fraudulent election of October 2019.
Despite protests and subsequent blockades from the opposition, legal and electoral experts agreed the TSE acted within its constitutional limits regarding its decision to delay national elections by six weeks due to rising COVID-19 cases. TSE leaders justified their decision to postpone elections to October 18 without obtaining assent from the ALP by citing the 2009 constitution and later electoral laws that establish the electoral body as an independent and coequal branch of government with well defined electoral prerogatives. TSE President Salvador Ignacio Romero Ballivian stated the TSE consulted various epidemiological studies from the Ministry of Health and international health organizations to assess forecasts of the pandemic peaking in September. Romero explained the TSE ultimately decided to push back the election date to minimize public-health risks during the peak of the crisis. Prior to the TSE decision, many civil society groups and the majority of presidential candidates, with the exception of MAS candidate Luis Arce, had called on the TSE to delay the election due to the exponential rise in coronavirus cases and threats to public safety.
Article 12 of the 2009 constitution clearly identifies the TSE as a coequal branch of the state that maintains its independence and separation from the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. Article 24 of the 2008 Electoral Body Law further delineates the TSE responsibilities to call fixed electoral processes, decide election dates, and approve the respective electoral calendar. Local media reports quoted a number of constitutional and electoral experts who argued the TSE acted within its legal scope of responsibilities to move the election date back based on legitimate public-health concerns. In a press release, the United Nations expressed support for the decision to delay the elections and expressed full confidence “in the professionalism and independence of the Plurinational Electoral Body (OEP).” The UN release also recalled how the TSE members were selected on the individual merits by all the political parties of the ALP and that TSE President Romero was appointed due to his “recognized and impeccable career in electoral matters.”
On August 12, following nearly two weeks of extensive protests and road blockades that paralyzed the country and restricted passage of vital medical supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic, political parties within the ALP reached an agreement giving legal approval for the postponement of elections to October 18. On August 13, interim president Anez signed the bill into law, and the TSE unanimously approved a resolution setting the election date for October 18.
In the face of international condemnation and dwindling public support for the protesters’ activities, MAS leadership began to distance themselves from initial solidarity, calling instead for “reflection” and eventually agreeing in principle on an August 8 election date. Other protest leaders from the Unity Pact initially rejected the MAS position and vowed to continue the protests and blockades. International organizations and humanitarian groups had criticized the protesters for preventing the passage of medical supplies through blockade lines. According to the interim government, these blockades resulted in the deaths of more than 30 COVID-19 patients who perished because trucks carrying life-saving oxygen tanks to hospitals were blocked. Local media also documented numerous acts of violent intimidation perpetrated by the protesters, including kidnapping, physical assault, arson, and vandalism. Despite vows from a small number of social organizations to continue the blockades in spite of the political agreement, overall support for the blockades quickly evaporated, and the majority of roadblocks had been cleared by August 17. Clashes between neighborhood civil groups and the blockaders were reported in the departments of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz during this period.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The law prohibits and sanctions the requirement of contributions to a political campaign and states political organizations “may not manage, accept, or receive, directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, any type of contributions, donations, subsidies, or support that have been provided from persons who had been forced to make the contribution by their superiors or employers, whether in public or private entities.”
On September 7, the Second Constitutional Chamber of La Paz ruled to deny the petition of former president Morales to run as a MAS candidate for the Senate. The ruling ratified the TSE’s February 21 decision to disqualify Morales’ Senate candidature due to his failure to meet the minimum permanent residency requirements from his asylum in Argentina. Following the TSE’s decision, representatives of the former president filed a constitutional protection case to reverse his disqualification. On September 7, the chamber ruled two-to-one against Morales’ constitutional protection petition.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The law mandates gender parity in the candidate selection process at national, regional, and municipal legislative level.
While women had a substantial amount of representation on the legislative level, occupying 52 percent of legislative seats, they remained significantly underrepresented in executive positions. Candidates for mayor, governor, vice president, and president were not chosen from party lists, and the majority of executive political positions were held by men.
Women participating in politics faced violence and harassment. According to a survey conducted by the Association of Female Mayors and Councilwomen of Bolivia, 59 percent of councilwomen polled had suffered some type of violence or political harassment in their municipality, and 39 percent did not complete their term due to the severity of the threats and hostility they received.
On April 21, Patricia Arce, a MAS-affiliated mayor of Vinto, who was assaulted by a crowd of men in November 2019, was detained for an alleged breach of the national quarantine after police accused Arce and seven other persons of participating in a party in their private homes. Arce described the detention as a political act. The Association of Female Mayors and Councilwomen of Bolivia denounced the “irregular apprehension” of Arce and demanded an impartial investigation to determine whether excessive force was used during the arrest. On August 7, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented criminal charges against Arce for making municipal dump trucks available to transfer rocks and debris to block the entrance and exit from an oxygen factory in Cochabamba during the two weeks of protests and blockades, following the TSE decision to postpone elections until October 18.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the former Morales government and to a lesser extent the transitional government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
Corruption: On May 20, authorities arrested Minister of Health Marcelo Navajas Salinas as part of an investigation into claims that the government paid inflated prices for ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients. In addition the state prosecutor announced four other Health Ministry officials had also been detained in relation to the investigation and that officials abroad and intermediaries involved in the purchases would also be investigated. Local newspaper Pagina Siete reported the government paid $4.7 million for 170 ventilators from the Spanish company GPA Innova, despite the contract being worth only $1.2 million. Press reports noted the steep premium paid for the ventilators, bought at approximately $27,500 each, were purchased from emergency funds the government received from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The IDB stated it was concerned regarding “possible irregularities in the purchase of the respirators” by the Health Ministry.
In addition to former minister Navajas, lead prosecutor Mejillones stated that former legal director of the Ministry of Health, Fernando Valenzuela; former director of the Agency for Infrastructure in Health and Medical Equipment, Geovanni Pacheco Fiorilo; and the consul of Bolivia in Barcelona, Alberto Pareja, were also charged in the case. Mejillones further reported that a consultant for the IDB who gave “no objection” to the acquisition process was also charged.
On August 17, a judge ordered the former governor of Beni, Alex Ferrier Abidar of the MAS Party, to four months of pretrial detention after being accused of misappropriation of resources, embezzlement, and breach of duties associated with two large public works projects while he was governor. The largest project involved construction of the Trinidad-Loreto highway and alleged construction work that began without proper contract tenders being issued or awards being granted.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to report potential personal and financial conflicts of interest and to declare their income and assets. The law mandates that elected and appointed officials disclose their financial information to the auditor general, but their declarations are not available to the public. By law noncompliance results in internal sanctions, including dismissal.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law establishes penalties of imprisonment for 15 to 20 years for conviction of the rape of an adult (man or woman), but it was not enforced. Conviction of domestic abuse resulting in injury is punishable by three to six years’ imprisonment, and the penalty for conviction of serious physical or psychological harm is a five- to 12-year prison sentence. Despite these legal provisions, the NGO Community of Human Rights reported two-thirds of domestic violence cases were closed without action, and the conviction rate of the remaining cases was less than 1 percent.
The law prohibits domestic violence, but it was not enforced. Lack of training on the law and slow judicial processes, among other factors, continued to hinder the law’s full implementation, according to the UN Entity on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and human rights groups. Domestic violence was the most frequently committed crime in the country, according to the National Observatory of Public Safety. According to a survey conducted by the local NGO Coordinator of Women, 50 percent of women were victims of a violent crime some time in their lives; two-thirds of these women suffered violence in their own home.
The law criminalizes femicide, the killing of a woman based on her identity as a woman, and conviction stipulates a sentence of 30 years in prison. Activists stated corruption, lack of adequate crime scene investigation, and a dysfunctional judiciary hampered convictions for femicide. According to the Public Ministry, 93 femicides were registered from January to August 24, with La Paz registering the highest number of any department with 30 reported incidents of femicide. The Public Ministry also documented 18,464 cases of violence against women from January to August. Following the publication of the figures, UN Women called for comprehensive actions to eliminate violence against women and full access to justice for all victims. Mercedes Cortez of the justice reform NGO Free Voice Justice Observatory stated the impunity rate for femicides reached 97.8 percent as of August; she called for more financial resources for the judicial system and an increase to the use of specialized prosecutors with experience in prosecuting gender-based violence. Under the interim government, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs held meetings and training sessions with businesswomen and female entrepreneurs with a focus on opening international markets to female business leaders and reducing bureaucratic procedures and obstacles for businesswomen.
According to the special prosecutor in crimes against life and personal integrity, Nuria Gonzales, social isolation due to the national quarantine had led to the increase in femicides, stating the majority of cases occurred in the victims’ own homes. On August 3, lawyers and families of victims demanded modification of Law 1173 Criminal Procedure Abbreviation that allows many alleged attackers to go free after completing their six months of preventive detention that the judge assigned to them.
On August 7, Dayneth Ch. of Cochabamba died in the Viedma hospital after being admitted with blows and burns to 80 percent of her body. Her partner claimed it had been an accident, but autopsy results revealed she had died from blunt force head trauma; her partner was charged with femicide.
Local media reported that in August, seven police officers were implicated in five cases of femicides and other violent acts. In some of these cases, the participation of uniformed police was reported and used as cover-up to provide impunity for their comrades. While senior public officials regretted how the image of police was being tarnished, Minister of Government Arturo Murillo stressed that police training could trigger violent and abusive action in some persons.
On August 11, Betsabe Mara Alcacia was killed by her partner, police lieutenant Adan Boris Mina. Investigations showed that Mina shot, burned, and then dismembered the body of the 24-year-old victim. Mina was captured, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 30 years in prison, but investigators indicated that two or three police officers helped cover up the crime and had yet to be apprehended.
Women’s rights organizations reported police units assigned to the Special Force against Violence did not have sufficient resources and frontline officers lacked proper training regarding their investigatory responsibilities. Women’s organizations also reported domestic violence victims received poor representation from public defenders and generally abandoned their cases after they languished in the justice system for years. On average it took three years for a domestic violence case to conclude. Once the case was closed, the victim was often responsible for the legal fees. The lack of public services, lengthy judicial process, and financial burden discouraged most women from reporting domestic abuse by their spouses.
The law calls for the construction of women’s shelters in each of the country’s nine departments. The municipalities of La Paz and Santa Cruz both had temporary shelters for victims of violence and their children. Human rights specialists explained the shelters for domestic violence survivors were not well staffed, did not promise anonymity, and could not provide protection from abusers. Human rights activists described shelters that, due to a lack of financial resources, mixed populations of many different vulnerabilities, such as juvenile delinquents, human trafficking victims, sexual abuse victims, and minors with mental-health issues.
According to the Public Ministry, during the COVID-19 national quarantine from March 22 to May 31, there were 2,378 cases of domestic violence, 153 cases of sexual abuse, and 124 cases of rape reported, marking a significant increase from 2019. Human rights activists stated the figures represented an undercount from the actual numbers because of the difficulty of reporting these crimes due to movement restrictions and the lack of other housing options for many female spouses during the quarantine.
Sexual Harassment: The law considers sexual harassment a criminal offense for which conviction is punishable by up to eight years’ imprisonment. There were no comprehensive reports on the extent of sexual harassment, but observers generally acknowledged it was widespread (see also section 3, Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups) and that the sexual harassment laws were rarely enforced.
Reproductive Rights: By law couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and to have the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Civil society noted information on access to reproductive health can be difficult to obtain in rural areas due to lack of medical infrastructure.
The law guarantees access to contraceptives, but in practice, according to reproductive rights group Marie Stopes International-Bolivia, many health-care providers refused to provide the service and stigmatized patients who requested contraceptives. Some health-care providers required the consent of an adult woman’s husband or other male family member before providing her with contraceptives and would not provide contraceptives to adolescents without parental consent. Misinformation or social taboos made women hesitant to seek contraceptives.
Lack of access to quality medical care in remote areas adversely affected access to skilled health-care attendance during pregnancy and birth. In addition many indigenous women feared their cultural traditions regarding who should be present at the birth, the treatment of the placenta, and treatment of the umbilical cord would not be respected if they gave birth in a hospital or clinic.
The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.
According to the World Health Organization, the maternal mortality rate was 155 per 100,000 live births in 2017. The Pan American Health Organization reported one-third of all maternal deaths were caused by obstetric hemorrhage, usually postpartum. Another leading cause of maternal death was unsafe abortion.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men, but women generally did not enjoy a social status equal to that of men. While the minimum wage law treats men and women equally, women generally earned less than men for equal work. Additionally, antidiscrimination laws were not uniformly or effectively implemented to protect women from harassment and political violence (see also section 3, Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups). The government has legal restrictions against women in employment regarding limits on working hours and tasks.
According to a 2015 study by the National Federation of Female Domestic Workers, persons engaged in domestic labor rose to nearly 137,000 workers, of whom 96 percent were women. The study also reported that 40 percent of these workers received a salary below the national minimum and worked without the benefit of a contract and health insurance and other labor rights that come with contract work. A July report by UN Women highlighted the increased vulnerability of domestic workers due to COVID-19, both in terms of economic vulnerability from quarantine measures and nearly immediate wage loss, in addition to health vulnerabilities if they commuted to work.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
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.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
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.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
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.