During a visit to five factories at Nurbagh and the homes of low-income families in Kalarbari, it was seen that child labour was considered 'normal'. Four young boys ranging from 15 to 17 in age were working in two aluminium factories. A total of 25 families live in Kalarbari. A seven-year-old boy there was seen working with his mother.

Today, 12 June, is 'World Day against Child Labour'. The theme this year is 'Universal Social Protection to End Child Labour'. According to the Labour Act 2006, a 'child' is considered to be under 14 years of age. According to the National Child Labour Elimination Policy 2010, children cannot be sent to formal workplaces. Children cannot be employed in hazardous labour. Under special circumstances, with a physician's certification of the child's capability, a child can be engaged in light work.

According to the latest National Child Labour Survey 2013 of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), there are 3.45 million (34 lakh 50 thousand) children engaged in labour around the country. Of them, 1.77 million (17.5 lakh) come under the child labour category while the work of the others is permissible. There are 12 lakh 80 thousand children engaged in hazardous labour, and 2 lakh 60 thousand in extremely highly hazardous labour.

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Three children were doing some polishing work at an aluminium factory in Nurbagh. Their clothes, hair and faces were covered in grey aluminium dust. One of the persons there said by the afternoon, they could hardly be recognised

The Dhaka district deputy inspector general of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, AKM Salauddin, told Prothom Alo that the government aims to end child labour by 2025. To that end, the government has taken up several initiatives to mobilise awareness among parents and factory owners against child labour. So far, 8 of 38 sectors have been declared free of child labour.

Some no longer go to school, some have never been

This correspondent talked over mobile phone to the father of one of those two young cousins in Kamrangirchar. He is an electrician. He said, he had lost work during the corona outbreak and has been plying a rickshaw since then. Out of dire need, he requested the owner of the plastic factory to give his eldest son (13 years old) of three, work at the factory. The boy earns Tk 1,400 a week. When asked if he will start sending his son to school again, he replied, "I want to educate him. I will ask the factory owner to give him time to study."

The non-government organisation, Community Participation and Development (CPD), in 2019 carried out a survey on child labour in Nurbagh, Nizambagh and Ashrafabad. The survey stated that over 1200 children worked in around 433 factories in these three areas.

At around 11:00 in the morning, three children were doing some polishing work at an aluminium factory in Nurbagh. Their clothes, hair and faces were covered in grey aluminium dust. One of the persons there said by the afternoon, they could hardly be recognised. The three boys told Prothom Alo, they joined work to help their families out. They receive Tk 2,200 a week. The youngest, 15 years old, said his home was in Belkuchi upazila or Sirajganj. He took up work in a factory at Tangail seven months ago. He came to work at this factory in Kamrangirchar a month ago.

Children working at such factories face the risk of pneumonia, coughs, ringworm on their fingers, injuries in accidents, long term respiratory problems, liver disease, urinary bladder cancer and such diseases

He was in Class 5 when the pandemic broke out and school closed. He did not return to school after that. His father is an agriculture labourer.

One of the other two boys said they lost their home to river erosion. He has studied up till Class 2. Another boy, third among six siblings, said, "Father told me I won't learn how to work unless I start at an early age." He has never been to school.

A boy working at another aluminium factory also said he had never gone to school.

The labour and employment ministry in 2013 published a gazette identifying 38 different kinds of work as hazardous. This year another 5 have been added to the list, though no gazette has been issued as yet.

Aluminium and plastic factories rank at number one and two respectively on the list of 43 jobs considered hazardous on the child labour list. It has been warned that children working at such factories face the risk of pneumonia, coughs, ringworm on their fingers, injuries in accidents, long term respiratory problems, liver disease, urinary bladder cancer and such diseases.

Owner of Mehdi Metal in Kamrangirchar, Md Shahadat Hossain, told Prothom Alo that he had some adolescents in his factory, not any very small children. Parents came to him, speaking of their need and so he employed two of three of the adolescents to do light work.

The non-government organisation, Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) carried out a survey under the Protection of Working Children (PWC) programme from April 2020 to April 2021 in Dhaka (Kamrangirchar and Keraniganj), Cumilla, Barishal, Jashore and Khulna. A total of 33 thousand children took part in the survey. The survey report said, 3,240 children come from the villages to the cities and took up work. Of 2,500 children who left work to join school, went back to work during the corona outbreak to help their families. And 2,400 children joined work more hazardous than before for lower wages. Another 7,800 new child workers joined hazardous work.

Even a seven-year-old at work

Two girls, 13 and 15 years old respectively, were sitting in a front yard at Kalarbari near the Kamrangirchar embankment, making clips. A woman, sitting in the verandah of a house nearby, told Prothom Alo that the small children of all the houses there worked. She makes tubes for plastic bottles in a factory. Seeing her struggle, her seven-year-old son started to help her with the work. The factory owner saw this and was touched. He gave the little child work for a payment of Tk 700 a week. When asked why she allowed her son to work when he was so small, the mother replied that he husband had no work. She married off her 14-year-old daughter. Her son had never been to school, but she really wants to educate him.

Rafeza Shaheen, coordinator of MJF's child protection division, told Prothom Alo, they have to prevent child labour by sending children to school. The government has to take up short and long-term planning to mobilise awareness in this regard among parents and factory owners. Strict monitoring must be put in place so that parents send their children to school, not to work. The children who are engaged in work should be given skills development training so that they are not victims of physical and sexual abuse.

* This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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