Section 7. Worker Rights
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The monthly minimum wage was greater than the government’s official poverty income. The World Bank estimated that for fiscal year 2018, 35 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.
The law establishes a maximum workweek of 48 hours and limits the workday to eight hours for men. The law sets a 40-hour workweek for women, prohibits women from working at night, mandates rest periods, and requires premium pay for work beyond a standard workweek. The law stipulates a minimum of 15 days of annual leave. Penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud. The Ministry of Labor sets occupational health and safety (OSH) standards and monitors compliance. The law mandates that the standards apply uniformly to all industries and sectors. The interim government did not effectively enforce the law.
The Ministry of Labor’s Bureau of Occupational Safety has responsibility for the protection of workers’ health and safety, but penalties for violations of OSH laws were not commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence. The number of inspectors was insufficient to provide effective workplace inspection. Ministry officials confirmed that labor inspection teams had been severely limited by COVID-19 and the ensuing restrictions that began in March. The Municipal Offices of Children and Adolescents also completely closed during the quarantine, so prosecutions against child labor offenders largely stopped until COVID-19 movement restrictions eased in September. Five mobile labor inspection teams resumed activities in late September, averaging 20 inspections per week. The ministry intended to have 24 total mobile inspection teams in operation in the coming months. While the number of labor inspectors dropped from 102 to 71, all were trained in identifying child labor and trafficking cases, although they also performed routine labor inspections.
A national tripartite committee of business, labor, and government representatives is responsible for monitoring and improving OSH standards and enforcement. The Ministry of Labor maintained offices for worker inquiries, complaints, and reports of unfair labor practices and unsafe working conditions, but it was unclear if the offices were effective in regulating working conditions.
The law prohibits dismissing employees for removing themselves from work conditions they deem hazardous and provides for the Ministry of Labor to mandate they be rehired following an inspection.
Workers in informal part-time and hourly jobs did not have labor protections. Many companies and businesses preferred workers hired on an hourly or part-time basis to avoid paying required maternity and pension benefits. According to labor law experts, the informal sector comprised approximately 65 to 75 percent of the economy. They claimed labor regulations meant to protect employees actually promoted the large informal sector because the regulations reportedly resulted in employers not hiring full-time employees due to the higher costs their employment entailed.
Civil society leaders and media reported Chinese companies employed workers in substandard conditions. NGOs documented the growing role of Chinese companies, which expanded their presence in the mining, hydrocarbon, and infrastructure sectors during the prior 10 years. There were also allegations that Chinese companies brought in Chinese prisoners to work in the country in exchange for their eventual freedom.
A July 2019 report by the Bolivian Center for Study of Labor and Agrarian Development (CEDLA) analyzed labor complaints against Chinese companies from 2015 to 2019 and denounced the “deplorable behavior of Chinese companies and their impact on the exercise of labor rights and the quality of work.” The report stated the most recurrent complaints against Chinese companies included physical or mental mistreatment, lack of industrial safety (uniforms and job tools), and lack of social security (medical insurance). Chinese state-owned hydropower and construction company Sinohydro was the worst offender, with 153 formal worker complaints during this five-year period. The Sinohydro-led construction of the Ivirgarzama-Ichilo highway (Santa Cruz to Cochabama Departments) completed in 2018 accounted for almost half of the total complaints. During four years of work, the project led to 53 labor complaints, seven worker strikes, one hunger strike, and seven conflicts between workers and managers.
The 2019 CEDLA report, which analyzed official data and complaints from various state entities, including the Bolivian Highway Administration; Ministry of Public Works; the Ministry of Labor, Employment, and Social Welfare; and the Ombudsman’s Office, also highlighted the record of the China Railway Construction Corporation, with 87 complaints from the project building the highway from Rurrenabaque to Riberalta, which was the most “conflicted project” in the entire country. The report described a series of unfair labor practices, including forcing workers to sign unfair contracts with clauses stipulating that they would be fired if they complained to the press. Since 2015 there were 39 recorded strikes against Chinese companies, and of the 17 strikes against Sinohydro, the company declared six of them “illegal,” despite the fact that only the Ministry of Labor has the right to determine the legality of strikes. In addition to the labor rights complaints, the report detailed several persistent environmental complaints, including the contamination of rivers, deforestation, illegal hunting and extermination of jaguars, and trafficking in jaguar fangs.