Bolivia - Working conditions

The Bolivian labor force is variously estimated at 2.5 million to 3.4 million. Reliable, exact data are not available, mainly because agricultural workers are uncounted. In addition, increasing numbers of the workforce rely on self-employment. Labor participation in 1997 from the available workforce was 82.3 percent male and 59.8 percent female, giving an overall 70.7 percent. Unemployment runs close to 40 percent. At the same time, hunger and homelessness are hardly present. Extended family ties and intra-family support are strong and traditional. Out-migration of unskilled workers to neighboring countries, especially Argentina, is estimated at 30,000 per year. There is a minimum wage (often not complied with) of about US$45 per month as of March 2001.

Household Consumption in PPP Terms
Country All food Clothing and footwear Fuel and power a Health care b Education b Transport & Communications Other
Bolivia 37 6 11 9 14 5 20
United States 13 9 9 4 6 8 51
Brazil 22 13 18 15 34 4 -6
Peru 26 7 17 13 5 7 25
Data represent percentage of consumption in PPP terms.
a Excludes energy used for transport.
b Includes government and private expenditures.
SOURCE: World Bank. World Development Indicators 2000.

58 Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies

Labor unions in Bolivia are a significant political and economic force. But the number of members, past and present, is in dispute. There are 2 unions, the Confederation of Bolivian Workers (COB), which has a monopoly of the urban workers, and the Confederation of the United Workers of Bolivian Peasants (CSUTCB), which represents all rural workers. Both COB and CSUTCB have their roots in the social and political struggle of the 1940s which culminated in the revolution of 1952. For decades, both of these unions were an integral part of the government and claimed co-responsibility for the 1952 revolution that introduced radical political, economic, and social changes. However, in the 1980s, the unions became less influential and their membership declined. A reliable source estimated that COB membership in 1992 was between 150,000 and 200,000. COB and CSUTCB are ideologically oriented—anti-free market and strongly opposed to privatization and capitalization, to the World Bank and IMF and their programs and loans to Bolivia, and to foreign ownership or co-ownership of means of production. COB still can mount frequent strikes, stoppages, and demonstrations as leverage.

CSUTCB's roots also go back to the 1940s with the struggle for indigenous rights which included universal voting rights, significant agrarian reform including the breakup of the large private farms, and the abolition of peonage (a system which forces debtors into the service of their creditors), all of which were achieved in 1952. In the 1980s, CSUTCB too lost government affiliation and support which has never been regained. The exodus of many rural highlanders to the eastern lowlands weakened the group's power base in the western highlands and central valleys. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, the CSUTCB regained strength because of the policies of the government, pressured by the United States, to destroy the illegal coca farms with crop substitution, which nearly all of the growers (with mostly small farms and plots) strongly opposed. One union leader was elected by the coca growers to the Bolivian legislature. Like the COB, the CSUTCB opposes privatization which is often with foreign funding, presence, and pressures (identified as neo-liberal policies of the government).

A power struggle between various leaders of the supposedly united rural federation has lately been intense, primarily because regional differences undermine a unified front. For example, the coca issue is predominant in the central valleys, especially in the Chapare (Department of Cochabamba), where the farmers of coca have gained some modest economic affluence. Yet, the coca problem is not too meaningful to the rural inhabitants of the mountains and highlands ( altiplano and cordillera ) of western Bolivia, where poverty is the main issue. This region has also experienced a resurgence in ethnic pride and identity, including a nostalgic look back to the pre-colonial days of the great Inca Empire. There are current claims that the great gains of the 1952 revolution were too little or are being reversed by the "neo-liberal" policies of the IMF, World Bank, the United States, and the EU. These rural leaders, even more than the COB, have often been disruptive by organizing marches, blockades, demonstrations, sit-ins, and hunger strikes, but so far they have failed to change the government policies.

The COB and CSUTCB and their leaders use modern technologies such as cellular phones and web sites to present their case to the Bolivian people and the international community. All indications are that they will actively participate in the 2002 general elections. As working conditions have improved slowly over the years the unions have failed to gain more support. Average personal income in 2000 reached US$1,300 a year, up from somewhat less than US$1,000 in the 1980s.

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