Child Labour: Exploring the Habitus of Child Labourers in El Alto, Bolivia

Steffen Clausen

Student thesis: Master thesis


Since the 19th century, child labour has been regarded as a problem in the West. This perception has led to a vast amount of research where researchers have investigated the external causes leading to child labour. Researchers have investigated child labour through a top-down approach in which adults have sought to understand child labour through other adults. Hence, a holistic understanding of child labour where the children’s perspective is included and the internal mechanisms that give rise to child labour is comprehended, does not exist. Moreover, since the West regards child labour as a problem, many international development policies with the aim of reducing child labour, have also been adopted. Nevertheless, these policies have applied a one-size-fits all approach in which the local context is not taken into consideration. These policies have neglected to take the desires of the children into consideration before they were drawn up.
This study seeks to understand the very essence of child labour through a bottom-up approach to the phenomenon. Child labourers and other local actors anchored in the local context of El Alto, Bolivia are given a voice, and thereby add to the adult and Western based understanding of child labour. Through this approach, the paper attempts to bridge the gap between the Western perception of child labour and the on-the-ground realities. The findings may serve to illustrate why a one-size- fits all approach does not present a reliable description and analysis of the child labour phenomenon.
Based on empirical findings, this paper seeks to understand the underlying mechanisms that reproduce child labour in El Alto, Bolivia. Using the system of terminology introduced by Pierre Bourdieu and the theory of discourses, this paper claims that there is a habitus of working among the children in El Alto, which is reproduced through early socialisation and discourses.
The study finds that many of the children start to work because they grow up in poor families where their economic contribution is important for the wellbeing of the family and, in some cases, even for the survival of the household. Moreover, in the indigenous communities in El Alto, work is considered an important activity in the family and the children therefore take part in the economic activities of the family from an early age. Work is an important part of the socialisation process in the family and it is likewise, considered an important way for the children to acquire skills.
An important finding, which questions the prevalent Western perception of child labour as a problem, is the fact that the children liked to work. The children enjoyed the various benefits, such as independence and buying power, they acquired through their work. Another important finding in the study was that many of the children used their work as a means of being able to attend school. This likewise challenges the Western perception of child labour and schooling as being two irreconcilable entities.
In summing up, by including children and local knowledge in the research process, this study has found that there are a whole array of mechanisms that reproduce child labour in the context of El Alto and that the children do not perceive their work as a problem. The study has attempted to reveal that the phenomenon of child labour is more complicated than the problematic images created by a single-minded Western perception and hopefully the study can add more nuances to our current understanding of child labour.

EducationsMSc in Business, Language and Culture - Business and Development Studies, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2017
Number of pages95
SupervisorsGurli Jakobsen