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Free Youth Now: An Introduction to Youth Liberation

Monday 9 November 2020

Youth Liberation in Action: Youth Labor Unions

I recently realized that this blog has heavily been skewed towards critical analysis of youth liberation issues. While this is important, and will hopefully help raise awareness, I have been missing out on some of the more positive aspects of youth liberation. 

The youth rights movement isn't all gloom and doom. It's not all oppression-this and ageism-that. 

There are young people all around the world who are currently working towards liberation, exercising their agency, working together, and making their voices heard. 

So, in "Youth Liberation in Action," we'll begin to explore some of these stories. 

The first story of youth liberation in action we'll discuss is that of youth labor unions in South and Central America. 

One example is the Bolivian Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (Unatsbo), a youth-led organization that represents thousands of under-18-year-old workers. Unatsbo's main focus is defending the rights of child workers -- campaigns such as raising the minimum wage for children selling newspapers. 

And this isn't just a Bolivian phenomenon; there are similar chapters in Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru, and Colombia. 

But, wait a minute... child labor is BAD, right? Like, across the board? 

Not necessarily. 

Let's be clear. Exploitation is bad. Forced labor is bad. Unsafe working conditions are bad. 

But these things are true for workers of all ages -- not just children. 

If one adopts the view that what is "good" is all children going to school all the time and studying what they are told, then, yes, child labor is bad. But this narrow view of childhood can also be pretty Euro-centric and paternalistic

Instead, if one adopts the view that what is "good" is that which people decide is best for themselves and their communities, and that which leads to healthy individuals and communities, then child labor could certainly be good in some situations, for some children. 

Again, I'll stress the point that exploiting child workers is bad. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it's automatically bad for young people to engage in voluntary, safe work. 

Perhaps instead of trying to end the possibilities for young people to work, the goal should be to end exploitation by creating protections and better opportunities for youth who do want to work. 

As one of the youth leaders of Unatsbo said"Why should there be a minimum age if the work is voluntary?... The work of a child or adolescent is not bad – it helps society, it helps a family, and it helps us grow as people."

Moreover, young people engaged with organizing efforts gain more than just worker's rights. The organization is involved in communities -- holding meetings, debates, and events to raise awareness. And members -- who are often from poor families -- also gain support from peers, visibility in their communities, and leadership and organizing skills. 

In sum, engaging in safe and well-paid work, and the organizing efforts around it, can be an empowering experience for young people, and especially those from marginalized communities.

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