‘Child labour must end in dried fish industry’

Speakers at a roundtable on Monday called upon the government to categorise child labour in the dried fish industry as a hazardous sector and to place priority on bringing an end to it.

The virtual roundtable on ‘Seeking ways to end child labour in the dried fish processing industry’ was organised by the Bangladesh Centre for Communication Programs (BCCP) and Prothom Alo, with support from Winrock International’s CLIMB project.

Around 20 per cent of the workers in the hazardous dried fish industry of the country, are children.

The speakers said this sector was extremely harmful for children as it involved carrying heavy loads, using sharp utensils and handling chemicals, among other dangerous tasks.

The speakers also said that so far this sector had not even been identified as hazardous by the labour law. The government had recently taken an initiative to do so. If child labour was to be stopped, it was essential to give priority to this sector.

Starting off the discussion, Prothom Alo’s associate editor Abdul Quayum said children were commonly used in the dried fish processing industry. The owners of these industries are alerted in advance if any inspection is to be carried out and temporarily remove the children from their processing plants. The media carries reports on such matter in a bid to eliminate child labour.

Associate professor of Chittagong University, Mohammad Nurun Nabi, presented a research paper on child labour in the dried fish processing industry.

The research showed that the dried fish processing industry was most extensive in Cox’s Bazar sadar and Maheskhali upazilas. And 93 per cent of the dried fish, known as shutki, was produced in the Nazirtek ‘shutkipalli’ or dried fish zone.

Around 14,366 workers were employed in this industry, 20 per cent of whom were children, 63 per cent women and the rest, men. Of the child workers, 41 per cent were under 14 years of age, and 59 per cent between 14 and 17. Also, 72 per cent of these child workers were girls. A total of 461 child workers were interviewed for the study.

Mohammad Nurun Nabi said that the children came from the families who had settled around the dried fish zone, having been displaced from their homes by river erosion and poverty. As boys could find numerous other jobs, it was the girls who mostly came to this industry. The industry owners said that women were reluctant to work unless their children were employed too and so they were obliged to take on child labour. The research also said that children in the dried fish processing industry were subject to physical and sexual abuse.

Mostafizur Rahman

Joint inspector general at the department of inspection for factories and establishments under the labour and employment ministry, Mostafizur Rahman, said the government had a target to end hazardous child labour by 2021 and to end all child labour by 2025. There should be no workplace for children. The dried fish processing industry had not been on the list of hazardous labour so long. It is now being included in the list of six sectors being added to the list. This will soon be published as a gazette.

Executive director of INCIDIN Bangladesh and member of the National Child Labour Welfare Council, AKM Masud Ali, said that reforms must be made at a policymaking level to end hazardous child labour. Child labour must be brought down to zero. The government has taken initiative to include the dried fish processing industry on the list of hazardous industries. But it will be useless unless priority is now given to end child labour in this sector.

Salma Ali

President of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association and co-chair of the National Child Labour Welfare Council, Salma Ali, said research and media reports provided evidence in the case of any issue including child labour. Based on this, legal assistance and advice can be given to resolve the problem.

Mohammad Shahjahan

Chief executive officer of BCCP Mohammad Shahjahan, said that strategic communication was essential in ending hazardous child labour. This required a target to be fixed. Ending child labour involved a lot of challenges and so the matter needed to be understood by all involved, including the children, the parents, the industry owners and the policymakers .

AHM Zaman Khan

Project director of Winrock International’s CLIMB project, AHM Zaman Khan, saw the economic aspect as the main obstacle to end child labour. He said profits were involved in the dried fish processing industry. Employing children meant lower wages and higher profits in the competitive market. That is why child labour continued. It was important for the government to include the issue of child labour in the five-year plan.

Winrock International’s civic engagement and capacity development expert, Md Tanvir Sharif, said that the children were falling ill, working in the unhealthy environment of the fish processing industry. They worked for 8 to 9 hours under the direct sun. They developed sores on their hands, working with water throughout the day.

Team leader of the BCCP-CLIMB project, Abu Hasib Mostafa, presented a video on child workers in the dried fish industry. He said that many children were obliged to work in unhealthy environments due to poverty.

The discussion was moderated by Prothom Alo’s assistant editor Firoz Choudhury.