On May 1, I interviewed 17-year old Jean Pierre Orozco from Iquitos, one of this year's two national MNNATSOP delegates, at the Día de los Trabajadores (Workers' Day) march in Lima. Below are some excerpts from our conversation, in which he eloquently explained his position on young Peruvians' need and right to work, and shared his own experiences as a young, organized worker.
Can you tell me a little about what MNNATSOP is?
MNNATSOP is a national social movement of child and adolescent workers. It’s a movement articulated by different organizations of "NNATS", which stands for boy, girl and adolescent workers. We’re a movement that promotes the rights of children and teens. And we’re always working for the idea of dignified work; we want the state to recognize the number of children who work, as well as those who work in exploitative conditions. We are first seeking for them to be recognized, then to be valued, and then to be protected.
What are some examples of the work that children and teens do here in Perú?
Yes, in Peru there’s a diversity of jobs. Beginning with the jungle, where I come from—since there’s flooding, boys and girls work in llevo-llevos, which are canoes that serve as a form of transportation through the flooded streets. Instead of a taxi, or a moto-taxi, they’re called llevo-llevo. Children also work selling curichis, which is ice cream. In Lima they’re known as marcianos, but we call them curichi. And in general, in all regions, children work selling candy. In the Andean regions you see a lot of lustrabotas, shoe-shiners. In all of Perú, children work selling newspapers, and also work in stores.
And more than anything in the Andes and the jungle, there’s work in the fields. Children who work on farms, planting crops, and taking care of livestock and animals. There’s knitting and sewing, making different kinds of artesanías. Selling bracelets and necklaces in the streets.
Then there’s music, and art. Singing or playing an instrument on buses or in plazas, and doing acrobatics at traffic stops—taking advantage of our flexibility and moving around and all that. These are some of the many different forms of work that exist in Peru.
Can you talk a little about the reasons for which children and teenagers work?
Starting with the national reality of Perú: our context is one of poverty. The state claims that we’re a middle-income country but we, from various regions and areas, see that that’s not true. As a movement of working youth we see that the problem isn’t poverty, right? The problem is the distribution of wealth, that rich people keep getting richer and us poor people keep getting poorer.
That’s one part of it, and another is the cultural context. This country has great biodiversity, and for us, growing crops, taking care of animals, and being on the farm and in the fields, is cultural. It’s something that has to do with family, something traditional. And for us, for there to be programs and actions that take working children from their farms and homes and bring them to shelters, is a negation of our country’s very culture.
Family situation is another factor. Many children are raised by single mothers, and maybe their mother is sick and they have three siblings in school. And if you’re the oldest, you try to make sure your siblings have a good education. You go out and work, and try to help so that they can study and your mom can have her medication. And that’s very complicated, you know?
The other thing is that there’s a large sector of boys, girls and teens who work because they like it. The idea of going out on the streets and doing acrobatics, dancing, theater… it's a form of solidarity. For us, sitting and lying around the house watching television seems rather unethical, because our mothers and fathers exert themselves and we just sit around watching TV, not doing much. So it’s also a form of supporting the family, and a kind of training. Because we see and learn how to value money—because if we want to buy snacks, sodas, or unimportant things, we learn how much work and effort it takes to be able to afford them.
And for you, what’s the difference between working as necessity and working as a right?
The difference is in the political constitution of Peru—our supreme document. It states that all human beings have the right to work, because work is a human right. Work is a form of a person’s fulfillment, a form of education. So for us, from that very sentence in the constitution, it’s already a right that we all have. It's a right that we can all exercise. That’s one side. But the other side is the idea of necessity. Many families live in the day-to-day context of not having stable employment, and have to go out on the streets to sell snacks, candy. It's very complicated. So these same children and adults who are working because of necessity have a right to work. And for us it’s that: we’re fighting for policies that help everyone have a better quality of life.
How would you respond to—let’s say someone, a foreigner, is traveling through Peru, in Lima or somewhere else, and sees a 9-year-old girl working in a market, or selling on the street. And they say, "oh, poor thing, she should be playing or something else…” How would you respond to that kind of sentiment?
Often people, whether we’re foreigners or from the same country, see a child working and we immediately think of them as victims. Poor thing, that child in those conditions... We feel pity, we feel bad. For me, and in particular those from the Movement, and the young people we represent, that’s something we don’t like. Because it puts us in a marginalized position. We have the same rights that a child with a better economic status has, don’t we?
We say that working, studying and playing are all rights that we can enjoy. Because we have fun working in the fields, or in the streets, or doing cultural work. We do it with a lot of joy, satisfaction and pleasure. And it’s also a way to have a good time. So for us, and for the Movement, education has never been left on the sidelines. That is, it’s not that we promote work. We promote rights. We promote the respect of our rights. For us, that doesn't mean that education and play are left behind.
Can you explain what’s happening with the criminalization of working children?
What you mention is a really important point, because the policies the government creates are centered on fighting crime. And if you’re not recognized by the law, you’re doing something that’s prohibited, which means you’ll be criminalized. And given the minimum working age, which is 14, the thousands of children ages 7 or 12 or 13 who work, are criminalized. They’re stigmatized. And this is a widespread reality—not just a few small cases. In Iquitos, in Lima, in Andahualyas, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina…all over the world.
And this is from the same government that’s supposed to be guaranteeing our rights. They have campaigns in the streets: If you see a working child, report them. They reduce your work and the money you’ve earned by begging. The government’s own strategies aren’t very clear when they talk about “child labor,” which is a term we don’t agree with. Their definition of child labor includes prostitution, pornography, the participation of children in armed conflicts, child trafficking—and these are crimes! The government’s concept needs clarifying. And what we’re looking for is that instead of criminalizing children who work, exploitation should be criminalized. The people behind the exploitative conditions that children work in should be criminalized.
But the children who work out of necessity, or for pleasure are criminalized as well. They’re also pursued by the police and reported. And it’s not that there’s an adult behind them forcing them to do something, it’s about their life circumstances; and the desire to overcome; and to be in solidarity with their families. To be pursued by the police, or the feeling of being watched by a security guard who might come take your supplies away—your shoe-shining box, or box of candies—and then take your money away, and drag you to a shelter, to then call your parents and have them punish you, it creates a vicious cycle. It’s terrible for us. And that’s why we’re in a continued struggle to be recognized, in our specific regions, in Perú, in all of Latin America. Because the problem is: first, that they don’t listen to us; second, they listen to us but don’t take us into account; and third, that they create policies that work against us.
Can you tell me about your own experience as a working child?
Yes, I began to work at 8 years old. I had the good fortune of learning about the Movement the year after I started going out into the streets to work. My brother also worked as a child, and so did my mother. I’ve worked in the streets, in my house, in other people’s houses, and in a store. I come from a very poor economic situation.
My brother started in the Movement first. My mother was a collaborator. Then I started to participate. I began to learn about things I wasn't learning about in school like the Código del Niño y Adolescente (Code of Children and Adolescents), and the idea of dignified work, trabajo digno. Things that I never thought about in school, and never had the tools to understand.
And so at 8 years old I started to work, to support my mother. My parents are separated and we don't have our own house. And so I started helping in solidarity with her, because she would work in the mornings and in the evenings, and it was really tiring for her. So I tried to find ways to support and, as we say, to 'be in solidarity with our families, our fathers, our mothers.'
Personally, when I started to participate in MNNATSOP, I was really shy in school. I suffered from what is now known globally as "bullying." I had very little capacity to stand up for myself, to demand to be treated better, to denounce my mistreatment. I was so inhibited and submissive. But thanks to the Movement, beginning in 9th grade I started to 'untether' myself from what was holding me back. I began to express myself, to state my opinion. The Movement has supported me in this process. Working in the market, working in the streets and selling products has helped me significantly. In school, I've become a leader. I've been recognized by local authorities as a leader, represented my country nationally and internationally, in the United Nations, in civil society, and in private spaces.
At the very least, what we strive for is for our lives to be an example. That's the main idea of MNNATSOP, that the life stories of many boys and girls can be an example that things can change.