In 1936, George Orwell visited a coal mine in Grimethorpe, England. "The place is like... my own mental picture of hell," he wrote of the experience. "Most of the things one imagines in hell are there—heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space." Orwell was a lanky guy, 6'3" or 6'2", and I am too. So I was reminded of his comparison recently while crawling through a tunnel as dank and dark as a medieval sewer, nearly a mile underground in one of the oldest active mines in Latin America, the Cerro Rico in Potosí, Bolivia. The chutes were so narrow that I couldn't have turned around—or turned back—even if I'd wanted to.
Orwell wasn't the first to equate mines with hell; Bolivian miners already know they labor in the inferno. In the past 500 years, at least 4 million of them have died from cave-ins, starvation, or black lung in Cerro Rico, and as a sly fuck-you to the pious Spaniards who set up shop here in 1554 and enslaved the native Quechua Indians, Bolivian miners worship the devil—part of a schizophrenic cosmology in which God governs above while Satan rules the subterranean.
As an offering to him, miners slaughter llamas and smear blood around the entrances to the 650 mineshafts that swiss-cheese this hill. Near the bloodstains, just inside the mine, a visitor can find beady-eyed statues with beards and raging boners—a goofy caricature of Satan known as El Tio, or "the Uncle," to whom workers give moonshine and cigarettes in exchange for good luck. Before entering the mountain, I'd offered a small pouch of coca leaves to one of these little devils, requesting a bendiga, a blessing for my safety.
A few hours later, I was hundreds of feet underground, shambling through three-foot-tall tunnels, bony knees bruising over hard rock. My guide, Dani, a miniature man with the strength and temperament of a donkey, had burrowed so far ahead that he'd disappeared into the darkness. I called out to him. When he didn't reply, my photographer Jackson turned to me and coughed. "I'm freaking out," he said, and we soldiered on, trying to trace Dani's path through the hot, sulfur-stinking tunnel.
The Cerro Rico is collapsing. At its most productive the Rich Hill, as its name translates into English, yielded more than half of the world's silver, bankrolled the Spanish empire for 200 years, and inspired a popular saying based on the name of the city where it's located: "Worth a potosí," as in, "That Escalade must be worth a potosí, hombre."
But after 500 years of exploitation, the hill—which, at almost 16,000 feet, is actually a gigantic mountain towering like a skyscraper above the ramshackle churches and plazas of this city of 240,000 people—is as exhausted as its workers. Today, it still produces a little tin, zinc, and silver, and 15,000 men continue to labor inside of it, but they've done such a thorough job that the Cerro Rico has become structurally unsound. "One of the fears," Roberto Fernandez, coordinator of the labor rights NGO Yachaj Mosoj, told a reporter in 2010, "is that Cerro Rico is going to crumble like the Twin Towers, floor by floor."
In an attempt to calm Jackson's nerves, I reminded him that tourists were taken into these mines all the time. I'd actually visited ten years ago. What I didn't mention to him was that the depth at which we were spelunking was far beyond the limits recommended to study-abroad students.
Jackson and I were on a mission to find child miners, 3,000 of whom are rumored to work in the Cerro Rico illegally. Their work is officially forbidden by the Bolivian government, so they tend to stay out of sight when foreigners come around. But Jackson was still nervous, with good reason—according to the most recent available statistics, 60 children died from cave-ins and other accidents in the Cerro Rico in 2008 alone. In a country as poor as Bolivia, just because tourists—or children—are allowed to do something doesn't mean it's safe.
When we finally caught up with Dani, he had crawled his way to a group of working miners. Mazes of tiny tunnels led to large rooms carved out of rock, where silver veins have been dug out with hand picks, jackhammers, and sticks of dynamite. Five filthy and shirtless men stood around. Dani introduced us.
"Osama bin Laden is hiding down here!" laughed a guy with a shovel, stripped to the waist. When I pointed out that bin Laden was dead, he seemed genuinely surprised.
The men were in their 30s, they told me, and they'd been working together in the mines for about ten years, splitting the profits of the minerals they collected and sold. At best, they each made about $30 a day. They confirmed that there were children working down there but couldn't say exactly where. But we didn't talk long. It was nearing the end of the workday, they had just finished planting eight dynamite sticks in a nearby rock face, and they wanted to ignite it so they could go home—but they couldn't, because they'd forgotten matches.
"Captain America," one miner said to me, "do you have any matches?"
I didn't. The only solution was for someone to scramble back up to the mouth of the mine—a half-hour journey at a steady clip—and retrieve some.
And that's how Dani, our trusted guide, abandoned us in the depths of the Cerro Rico.
"I'll go get some for you, brothers," he told the crew before racing off into one of the feeder shafts and disappearing. They shrugged and returned to work.
"Jesus," Jackson said. "He really left."
"Yup," I said.
A few minutes later, I heard a sizzling sound. Jackson stared at me. Then we both looked to the corner of the chamber where dynamite fuses dangled from a wall like tampon strings plugging up a whole world of trouble.
"Are they lit?" I asked one of the miners.
"You bet," he said. Apparently they'd found some matches after all.
"When are they going to explode?" I asked. It seemed like a pertinent question, given that we were standing almost a mile underground, in a chamber full of dynamite, inside an already collapsing mountain.
"Any minute, Captain America. You'd better run!"
I'd gone to Bolivia because some NGOs and activists there have been trying—seemingly against all good sense—to lower the legal working age from 14 to six years old. And this was not the doing of mine owners or far-right politicians seeking cheap labor like one might expect. Instead the idea has been floated by a group of young people ages eight to 18 called the Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (UNATSBO)—something like a pee-wee version of the AFL-CIO—who have proposed a law that aims to allow young children to legally work. Bolivia's congress is slated to vote on a version of the law as soon as this month.
Why would an organization dedicated to fighting for the rights of young workers want to lower the legal working age? Current regulations state that youth can begin work no younger than 14, but these laws are rarely followed. Bolivia is a nation of fewer than 11 million people. This includes approximately 850,000 children who work full-time, nearly half of whom are under 14.
"They work in secrecy," Alfredo, a 16-year-old who since the age of eight has worked as a bricklayer, construction worker, and currently as a street clown, told me when I met him at a cafe in El Alto, the teeming slum city just outside of La Paz, Bolivia's capital. Outside in the street, children known as voceadores—"barkers"—leaned from buses and called out their respective destinations in the hopes of earning a few coins from sympathetic or illiterate passengers unable to read the signs. "And that secrecy," he continued, "pushes these kids into the shadows, as if they were criminals."
As we ate lunch, Alfredo told me a story about his first experience of exploitation, while working making matracas, small music boxes, when he was 12. "The boss was refusing to pay me my wages," he said, which amounted to about $3 per ten-hour workday. "And I kept demanding my wages, and he kept saying, 'I'll pay you later, I'll pay you later.' After six months of this, he said I hadn't done a sufficient job... as an excuse not to pay me." If Alfredo had been working legally he would have technically had legal recourse to demand his back pay. "In the end, I got half of what I was owed." Shortly thereafter, he joined UNATSBO.
In 1910, at the tail end of the industrial revolution, somewhere around 2 million children in the US worked in coal mines, factories, and on plantations. A century earlier in England, more than 50 percent of the workforce in some textile and garment factories consisted of child laborers. The inspiration behind David Copperfield was Charles Dickens's own experience working in a factory as a 12-year-old. "I know enough of the world now to have lost the capacity of being much surprised by anything," he wrote, "but it is a matter of some surprise to me, even now, that I can have been so easily thrown away at such a young age."
But today, after two centuries of economic development, compulsory schooling, and restrictive legislation, less than 1 percent of the workforce in the Western world is made up of children, and the International Labour Organization's (ILO) Minimum Age Convention has codified these developments into a widely followed international agreement. In 1973, the ILO convention set the minimum working age at 15 (14 in some circumstances) and was ratified by 166 countries.
Efforts to eradicate child labor in underdeveloped countries, however, have floundered. According to the ILO, there are still 168 million children in the world under the age of 17 working in every type of grueling physical capacity imaginable. In Africa, 59 million children work, or one out of five young people; in Asia, the workforce includes 78 million kids. In Latin America, it's 13 million, or nearly one of every ten children. In Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, one of every three children works.
According to the ILO, the total number of children working worldwide has declined since 1960, but rapid urbanization has increased child-labor figures in many cities. Additionally, a 2008 study by the ILO projected that the global recession was likely to drive 300,000 to 500,000 new children into the Latin American workforce. The fact that so many children continue to work is, according to a joint study by economists at Cornell University, "a failure of stunning proportions." Because so many of these kids work illegally, they are invisible, laboring in the shadows. It's not just child miners, in other words, who work underground.
UNATSBO formed sometime around 1995 in response to the still-abysmal working conditions faced by young laborers in Bolivia. From the start it was composed of kids organizing kids, voting for their own leaders and rules. Last year Alfredo, the street clown I had lunch with, was elected president of the El Alto chapter of UNATSBO. He had participated in a march on the president's palace in La Paz in December 2007, with 1,000 other UNATSBO kids, to protest legislation proposed by Bolivian President Evo Morales that, if passed, would've raised the legal working age from 14 to 18. His fellow marchers wielded placards that read, if i don't work, who will support my family?
UNATSBO's protest helped defeat the attempt to raise the working age to 18. It was a clear victory, but not the solution to Bolivia's macro-socioeconomic problems.
Luz Rivera Daza, one of UNATSBO's fully grown supporters from the NGO Caritas in Potosí, where she works with unionized children, is part of a larger shift in the thinking among some Latin American intellectuals and activists about how best to respond to the realities of child labor in the 21st century.
"If I tell kids to stop working in the mines, what can I offer them instead?" she told me when I visited her at her office in Potosí. "The families of these children may literally starve if they stop working—their wages help keep the families afloat. Restrictive laws hurt these children," she said. "We need to eradicate poverty before we can talk about eradicating child labor."
Luz told me she hadn't received pay for three months because a crucial grant to her NGO had failed to come through. "I don't believe that work is bad for kids," she said. "What's wrong is exploitation and discrimination because you're a child."
But when I asked Luz if she would allow her own children to work, she paused. "No," she said. "I wouldn't."
Mainstream regulatory bodies like the ILO and the UN agree with her on this last point. The ILO's preferred policy position is total prohibition of all child labor performed by people younger than 14. "The dangers of allowing children as young as six to work are tremendous," Jose M. Ramirez, head of the ILO's International Program on the Elimination of Child Labour, told me. "If they're working, then they're likely not spending enough time in school. And while the immediate result of youth having jobs is that the children earn money, in the long run they lose money."
Another destructive effect, Jose pointed out, is that employers sometimes hire children instead of adults, depressing overall wages. This is precisely what happens in Bolivia's sugarcane harvest, where child workers are known as cuartas, or "quarters"—meaning they're considered one-quarter of a person and paid accordingly. Hacking away at reeds with machetes in extreme temperatures, they're also, like many child workers, subject to physical and psychological harm.
"Some say our attempts to eradicate child labor are culturally imperialist," Jose said, pointing out another rift in the child-labor debate. In much of the world, the concept of childhood stems from the Victorian idea of the "walled garden"—the belief that kids develop best by being protected from the concerns of the adult world for as long as possible. Yet in Bolivia, where 62 percent of the population is indigenous, Quechua and Aymara Indian leaders celebrate child labor and don't think children should be barred from contributing to their families' livelihoods.
Though President Morales has been a strong advocate for protecting the cultural traditions of Bolivia's indigenous groups, his administration believes that all labor by people younger than 14 should be explicitly banned. It's not 100 percent certain what exactly is included in the current bill that UNATSBO has proposed to Bolivia's congress, because as of press time it's still not through the final phase of revisions. UNATSBO aims to explicitly prohibit the most dangerous jobs, like mining and sugarcane harvesting, and lower Bolivia's minimum-age requirements.
Mabel Duran, a specialist in the Bolivian Ministry of Labor, told me that President Morales's administration supports updating the child-labor code to tighten restrictions on dangerous work but does not support lowering the age limit. She explained that her office carries out inspections, helps organize protests of businesses that employ young children, and investigates complaints about the mistreatment of child workers.
But the government's failure to enforce the existing laws gives legitimacy to the legalize-child-labor approach of UNATSBO. In Bolivia, UNATSBO and its various chapters have 15,000 members, and there are similar child unions in Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guatemala, Colombia, Paraguay, and Nicaragua. As these groups grow in size and influence, a larger split between First and Third World child-labor advocates looms. While UNATSBO's current bill may or may not pass in Bolivia's congress, it likely won't be the last attempt of its kind.
The Sucre Cemetery grounds in Potosí—all glittering caskets and skeletal trees, with the snowcapped Cerro Rico looming in the background—are the closest thing to a public park in Potosí. There, I met two shy siblings, Cristina and Juan Carlos, where they work cleaning gravestones. Cristina, 16, started working when she was 13, and Juan Carlos, who is 13, started working when he was eight.
Because of overcrowding, the caskets are stacked vertically, and Cristina and Juan Carlos climb ladders to polish or place flowers on graves for the elderly, who pay them about $2 to $4 per day in tips. They work for a few hours after school and from 6 PM to midnight on weekends. Half of their earnings go toward school supplies and clothes, and the other half is given to their father, a truck driver, to help pay for food and rent. They also said that their father has a new girlfriend and squanders some of his money buying her gifts.
Cristina and Juan Carlos's older brother, Jhonny, got Juan Carlos involved in UNATSBO. He had been working since he was eight or nine years old, but two years ago, at age 19, he committed suicide by hanging himself.
At the cemetery, Juan Carlos took me to his favorite part of Sucre's grounds—his dead brother's gravesite, which he polishes as part of his routine. As he dolefully scrubbed the stones, I saw that a bottle of homemade corn brew—or chicha—lay beside Jhonny's tomb because he was a fan of drinking. "There used to be a lot more kids at the cemetery," Juan Carlos said. "But a lot of them have retired due to drugs and alcoholism."
While Juan Carlos polished away, Cristina led me to a part of the cemetery where the city's miners were buried. It was a beautiful sepulcher, the Andes towering on the horizon. One wall read, the miner's service to his community ends here.
When I asked Cristina if there was anything she didn't like about her work, she said that drunks and thieves sometimes sneaked into the cemetery at night and harassed her. "They call me a slacker," she said, "and say that I'm just working for my own enjoyment."
When she was done polishing the miners' tombs, I asked her if she ever thought about death, having spent so much time working in the cemetery. "I'm more afraid of life than death," she said after a long pause. "Because in death, at least, you can rest with God."
On one of my last days in Potosí, I finally managed to arrange a meeting with a child miner who makes his living in the depths of Cerro Rico. Fifteen-year-old Jose Luis met me at his family's shack in the working-class neighborhood of San Cristobal. Their house rests on a steep, cobblestone slope shrouded in clouds. Like everyone else in the city, Jose Luis lives in the shadow of the Cerro Rico.
On some mornings and nights he walks an hour up the dirt road to Cerro Rico before descending into the mine to work.
"At first I was very scared," he said, recalling his first day at the mine at age 11. "All that darkness is spooky." A few years later he was in the tunnels sifting rocks when he spotted a group of men carrying a dead body. It was an accident, and that became his new fear: getting killed. "If you go up," he said, "you don't know if you will come back down."
Jose Luis works on a team with his father and cousins. He avoids the most dangerous jobs, like drilling, which fills the lungs with dust and leads to silicosis (and, eventually, death), and dynamiting, which can cause cave-ins. Instead he goes to the mines a few days a week after school to search for small bits of silver. He can earn up to $20 a day; often, however, he doesn't find any valuable minerals and earns nothing.
Unlike the laboring urchins that Dickens documented in 1800s England, who were exploited by sinister and unscrupulous industrialists, today's child laborer is often self-employed, struggling to make a few bucks in an informal economy whose rules and rewards are ever changing. That's why today's child labor is so difficult to derail—there is no clear enemy besides poverty, plain and simple.
After our interview, Jose Luis and I went down into the mine together. I wanted to see firsthand what his workday was like. He was chipper, and happy to have the company.
It took about a half hour of crawling to the shafts where Jose Luis worked. I watched him, on his knees in a four-foot-tall cave as he chipped away at a rock face, scouring for silver.
"You know this is dangerous, right?" I asked.
"I do," he said. "But I try not to think about it."
Dynamite blasts periodically erupted in the distance, and his dad and cousins arrived not long after we did. With them was another young miner, 12 or 13 years old, dressed in a pink jumpsuit and looking completely shell-shocked. He and six grown men had been upstairs drilling and dynamiting. He said that he'd dropped out of school two months before and had just started working the mines.
"Do you like it?" I asked.
"No," was all he said.
Delve into the mines with Bolivia's young workers with the VICE documentary Child Workers of the World, Unite!, premiering this month.