Child Labour – Although child labour is a global and fundamental ‘human rights issue’, its form and nature vary according to regions and countries. International conventions, universal declarations, laws of the land, social awareness — nothing can keep the child labour at bay.
It is poverty which decides a child’s destination, whether it takes the shape of school, a sweatshop or the street. Poet Sukanto has rightly narrated the pangs of hunger in one of his poems in which the full moon appears to him like a round, freshly-baked bread. In the realm of hunger, it is all prose. There is no place for poetry, the poet observes. You can read about The Safety initiatives of Accord Alliance and Can Trade Unions Really Improve RMG Workers’ Lot?
When it comes to the issue of ‘child labour eradication’, it is said that Bangladesh ready-made garments (RMG) sector has achieved a remarkable success; and its rate of progress is far better than any of its competitor countries. In view of the core issue of social compliance, none of the worker-friendly factories in the country is burdened with the NC (non-compliant) grading. Does this success mean we do not have other critical issues in the context of child labour? The bitter fact is the rate of success in the RMG sector has also resulted in the worst form of child labour in many factories, especially in the non-compliant ones. In cases, it assumes the form of even bonded labour. This situation facilitates exploitative and the worst forms of child labour that violates the basic fundamental human rights of a child.
In today’s globalised world, competitiveness is a vital factor in the context of the consumer-market. Everyone wants to lower production cost and maximise profit by increasing sales. Lower cost has always been equated with cheap labour — in our case child labour. Children do not bargain, argue or complain. On the other hand, they spend long hours in work without asking for any compensation. They are constantly in fear of losing job. This situation favours the employers. In many RMG factories in the country, which are out of the social compliance net, or run mostly on sub-contract basis, adolescent workers are being exploited almost systematically.
In the year 1993, the RMG sector had already reached a level worth $1.4 billion with around 750,000 workers at 1500 factories. Around 10 per cent of the total workforce was below the legal minimum working age i.e. below 14. Seventy per cent of the total under-aged workers were girls. Almost 50 per cent of the total business came from the US market. The single-country dependence compelled BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) to initiate, following the Harkin’s bill (first proposed in the US Congress in 1992), a child removal programme from the workplace in conformity with the Bangladesh Factory Act 1965. The Act says that any employment of workers under 14 is illegal.
BGMEA announced a unilateral deadline to make the industry free from child labour by 31 October, 1994. On July 04, 1995, a tripartite agreement was signed among BGMEA, ILO and UNICEF, endorsed by the GoB (Government of Bangladesh). The US embassy in the country played the role of an observer in the job of removal, and rehabilitation of the under-aged workers with basic and technical education and stipend. UNICEF took the lead in the area of education, while ILO engaged in monitoring and verification. The mechanism had been fully functioning by late 1996.
Out of eight fundamental conventions of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Bangladesh ratified six until 2000. The ratified conventions covere ending forced labour, freedom of association, right to organise and collective bargaining, equal remuneration, end to discrimination. In 2001, Bangladesh ratified one more fundamental convention i.e. worst form of child labour, and set the target of eliminating the “worst forms of child labour” by 2015. The country has also ratified the UN convention on the rights of children. The country, however, is yet to ratify a fundamental convention (C 138) on Minimum Age for Employment, which states: “The minimum age. . . should not be less than the age of compulsory schooling and, in any case, shall not be less than 15 years.”
According to Bangladesh Labour Law 2006, “A child means a person who has not completed his fourteen years of age”. No child is allowed to perform any form of work in any industry. On the other hand, “An adolescent means a person who has completed his fourteen years, but has not completed eighteenth years of age”. An adolescent can work in the industries or establishments under certain terms and conditions.
To eliminate child labour from our RMG sector, the factory management bodies have gone one step ahead. They have eliminated adolescent workers as well. The RMG sector has extended the age-limit of a child to 18 on its own definition. In front of garment factories nowadays, a common notice is seen hanging. It reads: “No child labour is allowed here. Workers under 18 years old are not recruited to the factory.” When an established industry like RMG products does not allow a ‘person’ living below poverty line and having no access to education to work, he or she has to choose an unrecognised industry for employment, where the working condition and the form of work are below-standard with low wages or, sometimes, with no wages at all. Only food is provided in this case. When children lose their jobs in garment factories, they get involved in highly hazardous sources of income just to make a living.
Child labour is a fundamental human rights issue. But in the subcontinent, child labour is culturally and traditionally recognised. In the region, the children of farmers help their parents in the field, and household works. The professionals like blacksmiths, potters, weavers and fishermen get assistance from their children in their respective fields. Thus from the very childhood they help generate family income. On the other hand, they gather technical knowledge of many local professions.
When a child helps his/her family without disrupting school education, it is socially appreciated by tradition; because the employment in this case is informal. When a child has to survive by himself/herself who cares about physical fitness, mental growth or educational rights? If the sharply monitored formal sectors, like the RMG, do not allow children to be employed there, those extremely poor or orphaned will rush to non-formal sectors like workshops, garages etc. There, most of them will get caught in the trap of forced and bonded labour. When scopes for job in the non-formal sector even are not available, children opt for begging in the streets, or get involved in trafficking narcotics or sex trade. If the RMG sector is not a safe place for an adolescent girl, then where would she go?
To make our factories compliant, we are throwing thousands of child workers into a complex life. An adolescent girl, who is denied a space by a RMG factory, will find it difficult to lead a life with secure growth and sound health. To get an ever-elusive job at a RMG factory, adolescent boys/girls take recourse to falsehood, hide their actual age and collect fake national identity cards, and thus prove their ‘adulthood’.
According to the latest National Child Labour Survey (NCLS), the total number of child labour in the country is 7.4 million in the bracket of 5-17 age-group. Out of total child employment, 3.1 million are considered risk-prone. According to an ILO survey, about 93 per cent of child workers toil almost 13 hours a day, where their daily ‘income’ comprises only food two times a day or Tk 30.00 a day to Tk 1500 a month. The workers have to undergo physical torture, work in a stifling condition, unhygienic atmosphere without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
In our RMG industry, the age of a child has been extended up to “not completed 18 years of age” due to the conditions set for the employment of adolescent workers. To materialise the government’s policy to eradicate the worst form of child labour by 2015, the government, BGMEA and labour leaders should work together. A feasibility study comprising doctors, psychologists and nutritionists can be initiated to measure the physical and mental stress on the adolescents working in RMG factories. If the result of the study is found favourable, then an adolescent can work for eight hours in a decent environment. We can apply this eight-hour work for the persons in the 15 to 18 age-group.
The ILO Convention 138 defines “light work” as work that is not likely to harm the child’s health or development, or prejudice his/her attendance at school. Work in RMG sewing floors is always considered light work. BGMEA/BKMEA can open evening schooling in different industrial zones and can provide training to adolescent boys and girls in different areas.
In a least developed country like Bangladesh where overpopulation, illiteracy and poverty are the major hurdles to achieve sustainable development, it is quite difficult to implement the ‘policy’ mentioned, as it relates to child labour. When the minimum wages of workers in different countries vary according to the countries’ socio-economic realities, one single standard on child labour cannot be justified. When we address the issue of child labour eradication, we need to consider socio-economic conditions of the country concerned.
On the other hand, the forms of labour will not be the same in different industries. Child labour in the ready-made garment industry is different from that in the mines or automobile workshops.
The official acceptance of adolescent RMG workers will surely help us minimise this form of deprivation in the country