Nearly half of the workers in the gold mines of Macusani were children, some as young as seven. Vidal and his brothers were lucky. They only worked there during the school holidays in order to supplement the family’s meagre income and pay for school books and uniforms.

“We were always bullied by the other children who didn’t have to work. But for me and my brothers the mines were the school of life. We learnt respect for others, a sense of responsibility and solidarity and most importantly we got status in our family from bringing in a wage”

Fighting for the right to work

Ccoa Mamani is now the Peruvian representative for the Latin American organisation NATS (Children and Adolescent workers) where on behalf of 14,000 child members he lobbies for better working conditions.

While he would not want anyone -young or adult - to have to work in the mines, he believes in the regulation not eradication of child labour. In 2001, the Mayor of Lima, set up a pilot project whereby children were paid for 8 hours work as shoe cleaners and sweet sellers but only worked in the mornings and went to school in the afternoons.

Limiting the age of child labourers

International organisations such as ILO, UNICEF and Human Rights Watch remain sceptical. “It is impossible for children below a certain age to manage to go to school and work,” asserts Zaima Coursen-Neff, researcher on children’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “They are often so tired that they risk having an accident at work” she added at a public debate at the International Human Rights Festival where “The Devil’s Miner” about child labour in the mines of Bolivia is being shown.

The International Conventions on child labour set 12 as the acceptable minimum age for light work and 15 for everything else except dangerous work such as mining.

Imposition of western values

However Ccoa Mamani believes these age limits are “subjective” and imposed according to western standards. “A child of 14 in Peru is not the same as a fourteen year old in Switzerland”, he argues. “These international organisations should stop imposing their western values on the developing world”

He argues that poor governments take too much notice of organisations such as ILO and UNICEF when drafting legislation and fail to consult the child labourers themselves.

A recent law in Peru banned children from hawking their wares on the streets, however this, according to Ccoa Mamani, has left them with little alternative but to turn to a life of crime.

“If you ban child labour, you certainly have to provide alternatives” says Joost Kooijmans, legal officer for the ILO programme on the Elimination of Child Labour. “In many of our projects we try to do this by for example paying for a child’s school books and uniforms”

According to the ILO, 246 million children work worldwide and one in eight of them are working in a job that puts at risk their physical and mental health.