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.
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 by birth. The labor code prohibits most public employees from forming unions, including the military, police, and 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’ Center, the country’s chief trade union federation. The government enforced applicable laws, but the enforcement process was often slow due to bureaucratic inefficiency.
The National Labor Court handles complaints of antiunion discrimination, but rulings took a 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 often were resolved or no longer relevant by the time the court ruled. Government remedies and penalties–including fines and threats of prosecutorial action for businesses that violate labor laws–were often ineffective and insufficient to deter violations for this reason.
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. Labor exploitation, forced labor, and other forms of servitude are punishable with 10 to 15 years’ imprisonment for exploitation of adults, and 15 to 20 years’ imprisonment for exploitation of children.
The government did not effectively enforce the law in all sectors. Ministry of Labor officials were not effective in enforcement efforts or provision of services to victims of forced labor. The ministry held various workshops to educate vulnerable workers of their rights, levied penalties against offending employers, and referred cases of suspected forced labor and human smuggling to the Ministry of Justice for prosecution. Penalties against employers found violating forced labor laws were insufficient to deter violations, in part because they were generally not enforced.
Men, women, and children were victims of forced labor in domestic service, mining, ranching, and agriculture as well as sex trafficking. Indigenous populations were especially vulnerable to forced labor in the agriculture sector.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
In February the Constitutional Tribunal declared unconstitutional provisions in the 2014 Child and Adolescent Code that allowed children as young as 10 years old to work. Gaps remained in the code, however, as it permits children ages 12-13 years old to engage in light work but does not specify the conditions or hours in which light work may be undertaken.
Ministry of Labor inspectors are responsible for identifying situations 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 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 age 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.
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 dedicated six inspectors to investigate child labor and report instances of forced labor and trafficking in persons.
Beginning in 2016 the ministry collaborated with the Inter-American Development Bank 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 intended to secure jobs for underemployed parents on the condition that their children stop working. The ministry also provided the parents’ salaries for the first three months to avoid burdening the businesses that provided employment.
The government did not consistently enforce the law in all areas, and child labor remained a serious problem. Government officials admitted instances of child labor violations occurred throughout the country, especially in the mining sector. Officials acknowledged adolescents ages 15-17 were working in the mining sector unregulated, because it was hard for inspectors to detect these individuals in the mines since they conducted inspections only in the formal sector.
The Ministry of Labor received funds to conduct a national survey on child labor in 2016. Although the ministry stated the study was conducted, the results had not been published. Preliminary government estimates indicated 740,000 children were employed, with 60 percent engaged in “familial work,” either in family businesses or alongside their parents, in often hazardous conditions.
Authorities did not provide 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 the sugarcane harvest, the Brazil nut harvest, brick production, hospital cleaning, domestic labor, transportation, agriculture, and vending at night. Children were also subjected to commercial sexual exploitation. A 2013 study estimated 3,000 to 4,000 children and adolescents worked in the Brazil nut harvest in Beni Department; indigenous groups confirmed a majority of these children were indigenous. Researchers also found that some children worked in Brazil nut processing factories, including at night.
There was little progress in removing children from mining activities. Media reported that minors younger than age 14 worked in brick manufacturing in the cities of El Alto and Oruro, and their parents sometimes contracted them to customers who needed help transporting the bricks.
Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/findings .
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. The government did not effectively enforce the law in all sectors, and discrimination with respect to employment and occupation occurred. Women in office 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.
In 2017 UN Women reported that women in the informal sector on average earned 19 percent less than their male counterparts. 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. According to UN Women, men in the formal sector earned between 1.5 and four times more than women for the same work. Critics contended these laws encouraged companies to give preference to men in hiring.
The former human rights ombudsman for Santa Cruz Department reported many women were fired due to their pregnancies, in violation of labor law.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The monthly minimum wage was 2,060 bolivianos ($300), greater than the government’s official poverty income level of 733 bolivianos ($107) per month. An estimated 45 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 also 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. The Ministry of Labor sets occupational health and safety standards and monitors compliance. The law mandates that the standards apply uniformly to all industries and sectors. The 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 the relevant standards were poorly enforced. The 97 inspectors were insufficient to provide effective workplace inspection. The law provides for penalties for noncompliance, but enforcement was not effective, and the fines of 1,000 to 10,000 bolivianos ($146 to $1,460) were insufficient to deter violations. A national tripartite committee of business, labor, and government representatives is responsible for monitoring and improving occupational safety and health 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 firing 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.
While the government did not keep official statistics, there were reports workers died due to unsafe conditions, particularly in the mining and construction sectors. Labor experts estimated an average of five individuals who worked in construction in La Paz died each year; most were employed by small businesses. There were no significant government efforts to improve occupational safety and health conditions. Working conditions in cooperative-operated mines remained poor. Miners worked with no scheduled rest for long periods in dangerous, unhealthy conditions.
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 65-75 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 they entailed.
NGOs documented the growing role of Chinese companies, which expanded their presence in the mining, hydrocarbon, and infrastructure sectors over the last 10 years. In 2017 the director of CooperAccion, Julia Cuadros, stated a lack of respect for labor laws accompanied this expansion. NGOs noted Chinese companies imported their own workers and typically followed Chinese labor laws, which are less stringent than Bolivian labor laws; the government reportedly permitted flexibility in compliance with the national law.