ARUN RATH, HOST:
Remember those Chilean miners who spent more than two months trapped underground? What if I told you they were the lucky ones?
Many miners in South America work in conditions far more dangerous, and some of them are as young as 6 years old. Their daily travails would shock Charles Dickens. But now, some children in Bolivia are unionizing and asking the government to lower the working age.
Wes Enzinna went into the mines in the city of Potosi to understand why. And he writes about the experience for VICE magazine.
WES ENZINNA: The Spanish began mining in Potosi in 1554. There had been indigenous groups living there prior to that. But when the Spanish arrived, they found this enormous mountain, the Cerro Rico, the Rich Hill. And it was chock-full of silver deposits. So they employed the indigenous Quechua Indians who were living there to extract all the silver.
RATH: This mountain has been mined for 500 years. That's almost hard to imagine. So what is it like at this point after 500 years of mining?
ENZINNA: So today, Cerro Rico, the mine, is nearly exhausted. In fact, it's been mined so extensively that some people fear that it could collapse at any moment. Parts of it have collapsed because it's basically been carved out from the inside.
RATH: And in this very dangerous place, you went in search of these child miners, and you found them. I see the pictures of them in your article. How many of these kid miners are out there, and what are their lives like?
ENZINNA: There are 3,000 of these miners ranging in age from 6 to 16. In 2008, 60 of them died from cave-ins, from accidents inside the mines. We primarily spent time with one young miner who was 15 years old. And he had been working in the mine since he was 12 years old. And Jose Luis - this was the young miner's name - he supplements his family's income.
He has a large family. His father works in the mines and doesn't make enough to quite support the family. They scrounge for silver - for tiny, tiny bits of silver, for lead and zinc, and then they sell it to a smelter. They basically work as freelancers for a very little amount of money. And so Jose Luis is the oldest son. So he, some days, make $40 - U.S. dollars - which is a lot in Bolivia. Some days, he doesn't make anything. And half of that money goes toward the family, half of the money goes toward his own school supplies.
RATH: You know, one of the most striking things in your piece, it's legal for children under the age of 14 to work in Bolivia. But you wrote about how when people want to raise the working age there are kids that are protesting that and kids that actually want to lower the working age.
ENZINNA: Right. In the western world, in the U.S. and Europe and Japan, child labor's mostly been eradicated. It's less than 1 percent of the total workforce. In Latin America and in Africa and Asia, it's still a huge problem. Bolivia is a small country. The population of the entire country is 10.5 million. There are 848,000 workers under the age of 18, and nearly half a million of them are between the ages of 6 and 14. So one in three children work.
And so one of the proposed solutions to the persistence of child labor in the 21st century has been to try to legalize child labor. That's what's being proposed in Bolivia. Right now, they're considering legislation to lower the working age to 6 years old. It's the same logic as with any other illicit economy, whether it's prostitution, the sale of drugs, which, you know, there's a moral queasiness provoked by child labor.
But the (unintelligible) working age is that if we can't make it go away, we may as well legalize it so that it can be regulated so that the young workers can be protected in the same way adults are. And I mean, the interesting thing in Bolivia, where I decided to visit, is that the chief proponents of lowering the working age to 6 years old there are child workers themselves.
There's this union of child workers called UNATSBO, the union of child and adolescent workers. And it's composed of 6- to 8-year-olds who are all working children. They organize protests. They attempt to raise wages. They elect their own leaders. And they've drafted the set of policy recommendations 200 pages long about what they think the government should do to regulate child labor.
RATH: Wes, one last question I've got to ask you is that you're going into this mountain that's just honeycombed with mines. They routinely collapse all the time. People die all the time inside them. There's no map. Were you just freaking out?
ENZINNA: Whenever I got scared, I thought of the fact that there are 8-year-olds going into this mine every single day. So at the very least, I can spend a couple hours in there.
RATH: Wes Enzinna is senior editor for Vice Media. Wes, thank you.
ENZINNA: Thanks, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.