Alejandro Martínez has developed a multifaceted approach to improving the lives of working children and adolescents by empowering them to defend their own rights, including their right to have dignified work. A lawyer by training, who has spent most of his life working with children and adolescents in and around Bogotá–and who himself benefited from dignified jobs when he was growing up–Alejandro fundamentally believes and has shown that dignified work can be a constructive part of a young person's development and a keystone in the repositioning of youth in adult-centric societies.
The New Idea
Alejandro wants to help children and adolescents capture a place in society in which they can assert and defend their own rights, benefit from active involvement in society at large, and redeem the workplace as a dignified place where they can develop and learn. Though it is true that most children in developing countries such as Colombia who work do so because they have to sustain themselves or to help support their families, Alejandro does not see nonexploitative work on the part of young people as an evil to be condemned and abolished by legislators and other adults. Rather, he believes that for millions of Colombian niños, niñas y adolescentes trabajadores (child and adolescent workers, or "NATs" according to the Spanish acronym)–and many millions more the world around–work, when it is protected and dignified, is an opportune activity through which youth can learn and grow. Work can also allow them to come together as a social, political, and legal force to "reposition" childhood in society and claim active roles for themselves in an adult-dominated world. The challenges that NATs in Colombia and elsewhere face are various and profound. The children and adolescents are often poor, from single-parent homes that offer little supervision, underserved by the public educational system, involved in dangerous cultures of the street, and utterly unable to assert or defend their rights in societies that subordinate young people–often even when they claim to act in the best interests of the children and adolescents. And, indeed, NATs are often exploited and mistreated in the workplace itself. Alejandro combats these challenges with four distinct programs under the auspices of his Proyecto Pequeño Trabajador, or Small Worker Project, whose common element is an effort to empower working children and adolescents to become self-sufficient actors in defense of their own rights. These programs focus on, 1) social development of groups of NATs and their relationships with their communities and their families; 2) the education of these children and adolescents so as to empower them as workers and citizens; 3) the creation of local income-generation schemes that provide dignified work and revenue for young people and their families; and, 4) the development of a large-scale proto-movement of working children and adolescents to influence public opinion and law at the national and international levels.
Colombia, like most of its Latin American neighbors, has traditionally suffered from significant poverty levels, limited opportunities for dignified work with potential for advancement, and social policies that underserve the population's needs. Colombia's cities also face the strain of influxes from rural areas, where fighting among the parties involved in the country's decades-long civil war has continually driven people from their homes and communities. Many Colombians–no less so than observers and defenders of children's rights in developed countries–would prefer that young people did not have to work. However, the fact is that there are at least 2.5 million working children and adolescents in Colombia (a country of approximately forty million people), according to the Colombia Public Defender's Office, and this figure increases annually as many of Colombia's social problems go unabated. Alejandro maintains that this figure is actually a conservative estimate, since some seven million young people, he says, live in situations where their basic needs are unmet and have to contribute in one way or another to sustain their families. Working children and adolescents face myriad challenges to their safe and healthy development even over and above those faced by other poor children and adolescents. For one thing, they come disproportionately from homes with single parents (generally single mothers) who also work, and thus often cannot rely on much parental supervision or involvement. They are generally outside of the mainstream educational system, either because their work schedule has precluded it, because traditional education does not teach them the skills they need in the working world, or often because of behavioral problems. They are very susceptible to getting involved in dangerous street cultures, including circles in which there is violence, prostitution, and drug abuse and trafficking. They have little legal, social, or political voice, and insofar as they do, it is through adult channels. Finally, but by no means least importantly, the workplaces in which they earn the income they need for their survival and the survival of their families are often characterized by circumstances of subordination and exploitation rather than dignity and personal and professional growth. It is for this final reason that international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and International Labor Organization (ILO) have composed high-profile treaties in favor of the immediate eradication of exploitative child labor and the progressive elimination of child labor in general. In particular, the UN-sponsored International Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989, which one hundred ninety-one countries including Colombia ratified, was a major landmark for the cause against the exploitation of children–not against work on the part of children and adolescents per se. The ILO's Conventions 138 of 1973 and 182 of 1999 respectively establish minimum ages for employment, and abolish what the ILO defines as the worst forms of labor undertaken by youth under eighteen. Colombia never ratified Convention 138, and has yet to ratify 182, but the ILO reports that the Colombian Minister of Labor has recommended prompt ratification and implementation of Convention 182. These conventions are often cited by those in the international community who would like to abolish all work that precludes children and adolescents from participating in traditional education or in any other way interferes with an idealized, work-free childhood. Alejandro agrees that exploitation in the workplace should be completely eradicated and works through his organization to combat such exploitation. Nonetheless, to Alejandro, the international climate and recent conventions overlook the de facto situations faced by poor children and adolescents and their families in developing countries, and criminalize work by the NATs themselves. International human rights bodies, legislators and other adults effectively tell these young working people that they are engaging in a criminal activity that has no redeeming value and no future. This criminalization damages the autonomy and self-esteem of the children and adolescents, some of whom choose to work in dignified, often self-employed capacities, and many of whom work less enthusiastically, but selflessly, for their families. Alejandro also believes that legislative bans on work by children and adolescents in order to comply with international conventions can have the negative effect of driving young people who need to earn money for their family's survival from dignified–or at least safe–work for visible employers that must obey government regulation to underground employment in dangerous trades such as sex and drugs, for instance.
Alejandro's efforts to empower and enfranchise working children and adolescents are directed both at the day-to-day realities of the young person and at the system that marginalizes the work, and are manifested in four distinct programs. The first initiative in the Small Worker Project is a program of social development of groups of NATs. The groups, each composed of about ten Bogotá-area NATs, come together weekly with the involvement of an adult companion. Alejandro refers to this program as one of "accompaniment." The NATs are "accompanied" as they create action plans for work-related and recreational activities that they want to carry out together. At least three times per year, the groups take extended trips together, and they also plan community events such as Christmas parties, taking full charge of all aspects of planning and funding, in order to forge connections in the community and to demonstrate their responsibility and resourcefulness to their neighbors. An additional aim of this program is to re-establish links between the young people and their families, which are by and large their single mothers and siblings, by involving mothers in community events and group activities. To this end, Alejandro has established two parallel accompanied groups for head-of-household mothers. Alejandro established the accompaniment program in 1986 in Patio Bonito, a poor working community about an hour's bus ride southwest from central Bogotá, and has since expanded it to include working children and adolescents in two market areas, one in downtown Bogotá and one in Alabastos. Alejandro's second initiative takes place at the Small Worker Center in Patio Bonito. It is essentially an alternative school for some ninety working children and adolescents who have left public schools or who are no longer young enough to attend them. There, the young people study traditional scholastic subjects like reading and mathematics, but also learn the real-life skills needed in the working world that traditional scholastic tracks often do not provide. The educational initiative is meant to complement their work experiences, and to have meaning and utility for them. The third component of Alejandro's efforts is concerned with the creation of dignified jobs and generation of income in the community. The Small Worker Center in Patio Bonito has a workshop in which children and adolescents recycle used wood products and build new ones, such as tables and doors, to resell to the community. Other children and adolescents team up in groups that cooperatively sell used clothes or sweets. The center also has a bus that transports the young people to and from their homes to facilitate their involvement in center-sponsored activities. The adult companions of the programs for the children and adolescents purchased the bus, and operate it to generate income, to cover salary needs and to contribute funds to the center's general expenses. Alejandro's family-outreach efforts are also carried out in the center's income-generation schemes, so that mothers, as well as their children, can benefit from dignified work which also deepens their ties to their children and communities. For example, Alejandro has organized a group of Patio Bonito mothers into a kitchen staff for the center. The Small Worker Project purchases food for preparation by the mothers, the mothers prepare it, and NATs at the school and in the accompanied groups then buy lunch from the restaurant staffed by the mothers. The mothers also deliver lunch to others in the community. Earnings are shared among the mothers who participate. In the fourth Small Worker program, Alejandro spearheads initiatives to help young people reach out to their peers elsewhere in Colombia. The idea is to foment a proto-movement of NATs for the repositioning of children and adolescents in adult-centric Colombia and the global community. To this end, the NATs produce a magazine, "Palabras de NATs" ("NATs' Words"), that gives voice to their thoughts and concerns. Alejandro also helps to arrange meetings and other get-togethers among the children and adolescents in the communities in greater Bogotá that his work touches. These young people are primarily vendors in the city's markets, mobile vendors, porters, automobile attendants, and domestic workers. Alejandro links these city NATs to peers from other parts of the country, who may work in construction or in agriculture, for example. He also sees the need to expand the scope of his outreach programs of "accompaniment," education and income-generation–which he has already brought from their inception point in Patio Bonito to the Alabastos and downtown market areas–to the rest of Bogotá and to elsewhere in Colombia, and counts on the strength of his model and on some important personal contacts with civil society and church organizations in Colombia, other parts of Latin America, Europe, and the United States to accomplish this replication. Finally, Alejandro intends to draw some twenty Colombian organizations concerned with the welfare of children and adolescents with which he has been working over the last few years into the proto-movement he envisions. Though most of these organizations differ philosophically on the role work can and should play in the development of children and adolescents, they have been receptive of Alejandro's overtures towards a broad-based network for the empowerment and defense of NATs, and Alejandro believes that he and the young workers he engages have partners in their plans. He has already had success in changing the directions of some of these organizations to model more closely the Small Worker design.
Alejandro grew up in a single house with his mother, aunt, two siblings and ten cousins. His mother was a great influence on him, and instilled in him the belief that teaching is a profession that is even nobler than it is difficult. The older cousins in the house would work in construction and painting so that the younger ones could be free to study, but even the younger cousins worked at one point or another in order to contribute to the sustenance of the family. Alejandro worked in construction, enjoying the afternoons, weekends and vacations he would spend performing manual labor, and gleaning from his coworkers the idea that work contributes positively to personal development. His work and that of his siblings and cousins were never under circumstances of exploitation. On the contrary, Alejandro says, he always felt that he was working under the protection and care of his older relatives, whom he helped support with his income, and who encouraged him and showed him that work can teach responsibility and foster personal growth. As early as the age of eleven, Alejandro was helping organize into a cooperative his coworkers in his school's lunchroom. At that young age, he had the strong desire to run the food service without the help of adults, to have a cooperative of the children as well as for the children. Alejandro and his peers succeeded in establishing an income-generating cooperative that they were able to manage themselves, and within the structure of which they strove "to improve work conditions." After graduating from high school, Alejandro worked closely for a time with street children in an educational capacity. Having recognized that he wanted to dedicate his career to young people, particularly young workers, Alejandro decided to study law, determining that with a law degree he would be best poised to defend the rights of children and adolescents. Upon completion of his degree, Alejandro stayed true to his mission, returning to the street children of southwest Bogotá's vast poor neighborhoods, and serving their interests in a variety of capacities. All along, he and his wife have integrated themselves completely into the lives of the children and adolescents, keeping their door open and beds free for young guests. He began the "accompaniment" and education initiatives in 1986, and in 1991 incorporated his project legally as the Fundación del Pequeño Trabajador (Foundation of the Small Worker). In his present work, he sees two competing visions on resolving the problems of young workers reconciled. That is, his programs attend to the immediate, pressing needs of the children and adolescents, and also strive to address the structures that cause the problems: "We build spaces for organization and social participation," he says, "and we take action in improving the concrete conditions of life and work."