Involvement of children in work at an early age leads to health and developmental consequences. Working children suffer significant growth deficits as compared with school children. They grow up shorter and lighter, and their body size continues to be smaller even in adulthood. Many of them work under conditions that leave them alarmingly vulnerable to chemical and biological hazards.
Child workers tend to develop muscular, chest and abdominal pain, headaches, dizziness, respiratory infections, diarrhoea and worm infection. Poor working conditions make them more susceptible than their adult colleagues to infectious diseases, injuries and other workplace-related ailments. Many even experience amputations or loss of body parts. Moreover, children in certain occupations experience particular types of abuse.
Child domestic workers are often found to be victims of verbal and sexual abuse, beating or punishment by starvation. Children, engaged in scavenging, rag-picking or marginal economic activities in the streets, are exposed to drugs, violence, and criminal activities, physical and sexual abuse in many parts of the country.
Child labour is a denial of the right to enjoy childhood and achieve full physical and psychological development. Worse still, many hundreds of children are trapped in forced labour, debt bondage, prostitution and other kinds of jobs that cause lasting and devastating damage. Obviously the formulation of a National plan of action for the elimination of child labour in the country is a need of the hour.
Causes of child labour
Poverty is the single most important factor responsible for the prevalence of child labour in the country. About 55 million people live below the poverty line in Bangladesh. Poor households badly need the money that their children earn. They commonly contribute around 20-25 per cent of family income. Since poor households spend the bulk of their income on food, the earnings of working children are critical to their survival.
Parents’ perceptions greatly influence their children’s participation in the labour force. The education system of the country in general does not provide poor, disadvantaged children with any immediate prospects of better jobs or higher levels of income. The curriculum, followed in schools, is hardly perceived to be capable of meeting the practical needs of poor families. Naturally, poor parents fail to appreciate the long-term value of education, and instead opt for the short-term economic gains of child labour.
In many cases, the male children of the household are expected to help the father in the field and the female children the mother with the household work. Moreover, parents consider their children’s employment in certain occupations like in the engineering workshop as a rare opportunity to learn employable skills. To them, it is an alternative education with much more practical value than the traditional primary education.
Even though the government launched the Compulsory Primary Education Program all over the country since January 1993, education remains very expensive for a poor family, which is expected to bear the costs of uniform and transportation. In some areas of the country the expenditure on primary level students represents one-third of the entire income of a typical poor family, though most families have more than one child of the school-going age. Many children are, therefore, forced to work to pay for their own education.
Emergencies often contribute to an increase in the supply of child labour. Bangladesh happens to be a land of chronic natural calamities. Floods, cyclones and riverbank erosion render many people homeless and helpless every year. Low-income families have little margin to cope with any such disaster. They also find it very difficult to deal with the distress resulting from abandonment or divorce, or the injury and illness of an adult member of the household. As a result, trapped early in the world of work, children of such families become the worst victims of any kind of disaster, natural or man-made.
The lower cost of employing child workers and the irreplaceable skills provided by them are often cited to explain the demand for child labour. Although there is validity in the first argument, the second does not hold water. In all the industries that rely heavily on child labour, most of the tasks performed by children are also performed by adults working side by side with them.
Clearly, children do not have irreplaceable skills. The other factors, responsible for the demand for child labour, seem to be non-economic. Employers are tempted to hire child labour because children are much less aware of their rights and most unlikely to get organised in trade unions. They are also more trustworthy, more willing to take orders and do monotonous work, and less likely to be absent from work.
Children’s lower absence rate is immensely valuable to employers in the informal sector where workers are employed on a daily basis and the employers must ensure the presence of a full contingent of workers each day.
Magnitude of child labour
Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) in the “National Sample Survey of Child Labour in Bangladesh: 1995-96” defined child labourers as children in the age group of 5-14 years who were found to be working during the survey reference period (preceding 12 months of the day of survey). A child was said to work if he or she was found either working one or more hours for pay or profit or working without pay in a family farm or enterprise during the reference period, or was found not working but had a job or business from which he or she was temporarily absent during the reference period.
According to BBS the number of child labourers was 6.6 million in 1995-96. 19 per cent of the total child population (5-14 years) was found to be economically active.
The BBS in the “National Sample Survey of Child Labour in Bangladesh: 1995-96” defined child labourers aschildren in the age group of 5-14 years who were found to be working during the survey reference period (preceding 12 months of the day of survey). A child was said to work if he or she was found either working one or more hours for pay or profit or working without pay in a family farm or enterprise during the reference period, or was found not working but had a job or business from which he or she was temporarily absent during the reference period.
According to BBS the number of child labourers was 6.6 million in 1995-96. 19 per cent of the total child population (5-14 years) was found to be economically active. 11.6 per cent of the child labour force belonged to the 5-9 age group and the rest to the 10-14 age group. 95.6 per cent of the child labour force was employed.
Male and female children
Of the employed child workers, males constituted 59.8 per cent and females 40.2 per cent. Child workers were scattered all over the country. 17 per cent of the child labour force lived in the urban areas and the rest in the rural areas. Child workers were present in almost all the sectors of the economy with the exception of mining and utilities. Agriculture accounted for 65.4 per cent of the child workers, followed by services (10.3 per cent ), manufacturing (8.2 per cent ) and transport and communication (1.8 per cent ). Other activities including household work accounted for 14.3 per cent of working children.
The number of child workers in the country increased from 2.5 million in 1974 to 6.6 million in 1995-96. In 1983-84 urban child labour force accounted for only 9 per cent of the total child labour force, but this figure rose to 17 per cent in 1995-96. Child labour participation rate remains stable at around 19 per cent since 1989.
Hazardous child labour: Any comprehensive Programme, designed to eliminate child labour, should address on a priority basis the most intolerable forms of child labour. In 1995 the Ministry of Labour and Manpower in collaboration with UNICEF undertook a study, entitled “Hazardous Child Labour in Bangladesh” to identify the hazardous economic activities involving children. This study identified the following 27 economic activities as hazardous:
1. Automobile workshop worker 2. Battery recharging shop worker 3. Bedding manufacturing worker 4. Blacksmith 5. Brick/stone crushing 6. Car painting/metal furniture painting/spray painting works 7. Child prostitution 8. Construction 9. Dyeing workshop worker 10. Electric mechanic 11. Engineering workshop worker 12. Goldsmith’s assistant 13. Hotel/Mess cook 14. Laundry boy 15. Porter 16. Printing press worker 17. Rickshaw/rickshaw van puller 18. Saw mill worker 19. Small soap factory worker (crude process) 20. Sweeper 21. Scavenger (waste pickers) 22. Tannery factory worker 23. Tempo/truck/bus helper/unlicensed tempo driver 24. Welding worker 25. Shrimp processing factory worker (processing by hand) 26. Vulcanizing workshop assistant 27. Bhangari (splinter/waste collectors and processors).
The hazards, associated with these activities, were largely due to: exposure to flames, working with electricity, exposure to harmful chemical substances, carcinogens, neurotoxins, gases, fumes and organic dust, handling garbage, high-speed machinery, inappropriate hand tools, sharp equipment, extreme heat or cold, insufficient light, heavy loads, continuous working with ice and water without gloves and stressful working conditions.
UNICEF initiated the implementation of the education programme for terminated child workers in January 1996 through Gono Shahajya Sangstha (GSS) and Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). By the middle of September 1996, 135 schools were opened where 2080 children were enrolled. This enrollment rate, however, proved to be very low in view of the BGMEA statistics that showed the number of terminated workers at 61,000 by 1996. This poor enrollment rate was due to the fact that the 300-taka stipend only partially made up for the lost income.
Child domestic service is a widespread practice in Bangladesh. Although children are employed as domestics throughout the country, they have overwhelmingly high concentration in the cities. “The Rapid Assessment of Child Labour Situation in Bangladesh” (1996) estimated that in the city of Dhaka alone there were about 300,000 child domestics. In one semi-residential, typical city area with markets and roadside workshops, namely Moghbazar, Dhaka, out of 1181 child workers, domestic helpers numbered 770.
The majority of child domestics tend to be between 12 and 17 years old, but children as young as 5 or 6 years old can also be found working. A survey of child domestic workers found that 38 per cent were 11 to 13 years old and nearly 24 per cent were 5 to 10 years old.
Child domestics work long hours, getting up well before their employers and going to bed long after them. On an average 50 per cent of the child domestic workers work 15-18 hours a day. Irrespective of their gender, child domestics carry out all sorts of household work. In addition, boys often perform tasks like going to the grocery, cleaning the drain, taking the garbage to roadside bins, escorting the children to school and washing the car. Girls, on the other hand, have to iron the clothes, attend phone calls and serve the guests.
The domestics are usually given the same type of food as the employers, but they are given much less.
Bangladeshi children are smuggled across the border by the traffickers and then sold to buyers in India and and other neighbouring countries of the subcontinent or the Middle East. In different locations of the city of Karachi in Pakistan, such as Karimabad and Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Bangladeshi girls are sold and bought in the name of marriage or under the cover of religion and morality.
They move from one lord to another and end up as slaves for life. Bangladeshi boys are sent to Dubai and other destinations in the Gulf to be used as jockeys in the camel race.
Organisations working with child workers
The plight of child workers in Bangladesh attracted the attention of quite a few philanthropists from both home and abroad. They initiated Programmes in the non-government sector to promote welfare of the working children. The most notable of them, a New Zealander, L. N. Cheyne, on his visit to war-ravaged Bangladesh in 1972, was particularly moved by the miseries of the child workers in Dhaka; subsequently he founded an international NGO, Underprivileged Children’s Educational Programmes (UCEP), as a beacon of hope for working children.
Child labour is a sheer reality in Bangladesh. Children are engaged in hazardous jobs, working under most unhygienic conditions. Yet the prevailing socio-economic conditions do not permit outright elimination of child labour overnight. Experiences indicate that the elimination of child labour from one particular industry may culminate in an increase in child labour in another.
Moreover, it is not possible to force child workers to attend full-time schools since the lost income is critical to the survival of their families. Under these circumstances the government should come forward to formulate a comprehensive National Plan of Action, aimed at gradual elimination of child labour from the country in not too distant a future. Such a plan of action should attach priority to a large-scale replication of the UCEP model of integrated human resources development for child workers and actively seek to put an end to the most intolerable forms of child labour.
Programme Officer, ILO office in Bangladesh, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]