Child labor rampant in Dhaka′s slums

Why child labor is rampant in Dhaka's slums

Bangladesh has had a strong record on human development in recent years. But child labor remains an endemic problem, concluded a new study. DW spoke to the report's co-author Maria Quattri about their findings.

One third of impoverished children living in the slums of Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, spend more than 60 hours a week working illegally, with many of them employed by the country's clothes manufacturing industry, revealed a report released on Wednesday, December 7.

The study conducted by the London-based Overseas Development Institute concluded that 32 percent of children aged between 10 and 14 living in Dhaka's slum settlements were out of school and engaged in full-time work in garment factories - according to a survey of 2,700 children.

This is despite Bangladeshi laws setting a minimum working age of 14, although the statutes provide an exception in that from the age of 12, children are allowed to carry out "light work" for up to 42 hours a week, provided it does not interfere with their education.

In a DW interview, the report's co-author Maria Quattri blames the pervasiveness of the practice on poverty. She also stressed that child labor keeps children out of school, hinders effective learning and denies them an opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to escape poverty.

headabovewater | 03.01.2015

DW: What are the main reasons behind the widespread prevalence of child labor in Bangladesh?

Maria Quattri: Poverty is the main reason for the rampant prevalence of child labor in the country: 53 percent of boys and 74 percent of girls are working to supplement family income.

London Maria Quattri von ODI

Quattri: 'The poverty that families of these children face and that is compelling those families to send children to work perpetrates itself'

How is the problem of child labor aggravated, particularly in the country's slums?

Urbanization has been one of the engines of Bangladesh's development. But it has gone hand-in-hand with the rapid growth of urban slums marked by high levels of poverty.

What working conditions do these children often face?

Children work on average 11-12 hours a day for 6-7 days a week. A third of all the children interviewed experienced extreme fatigue.

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In Bangladesh, it is illegal for children under 14 to work. It is also illegal to ask anyone to do "hazardous work" for more than 42 hours a week. Still, the practice continues unabated. Why has the government failed so far to strictly implement these rules?

Many children work for sub-contractors that produce part of the final product and sell it to formal businesses, which then export the product. Sub-contractors are informal businesses that are currently not reached by regulatory institutions.

What are the implications for these children when they are forced to take up jobs at a very young age and discontinue education?

Child labor keeps children out of school, hinders effective learning and denies children an opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills they need to escape poverty. The poverty that families of these children face and that is compelling those families to send children to work perpetrates itself.

While child rights activists and civil society organizations criticize the practice of child labor, some argue that the impoverished families to which these children belong have no other option but to send off their kids to work. What is your take on this?

Wages from child labor equalize average income across slum households with and without children. Families of working children can survive because of the income gained by the child. Welfare payments from the government could replace that income and allow children to attend school. Students in rural areas already receive a stipend, but students living in urban slums do not yet benefit from a similar welfare payment.

What measures have been put in place by the government to counter the problem?

Recent years have seen the Bangladeshi government adopt an increasingly robust framework for combating child labor. The Children's Act (2013), the National Children Policy (2011) and the National Plan of Action (2010) establish a set of well-defined and ambitious goals, and identify lead ministries and cross-ministry responsibilities. However, the current framework suffers from a number of weaknesses. The "42-hour" threshold for child labor (as distinct from child work) is excessive and the gazetted list of hazardous work remains partial.

What more should be done to eliminate the practice?

The report sets out a list of recommendations to address child labor including: Raising the age of free and compulsory education from 10 to 14, increasing overall financing for education to 4-5 percent of GDP, with a greater emphasis on provision in slums, strengthening the regulatory environment for child labor and reducing the current threshold for "hazardous work" from its current level of 42 hours.

Children in a balloon factory

Extreme poverty causes families to send their children to work, often in hazardous and low-wage jobs, such as brick-chipping, construction, waste-picking or even in a balloon factory. This balloon factory in Dhaka’s Kamrangi Char suburb employs many young people such as this 10 year-old child.

Lack of inspection

Children - like those here in this factory in Kamrangi Char - often have to work near dangerous chemicals. The Government of Bangladesh has issued a guideline, which bans children from working in 38 different dangerous jobs, but the guideline has not been implemented anywhere as yet.

Most of the workers are children

Children are paid less than adults in Bangladesh and many of them work up to twelve hours a day. That is the reason why most of the workers in these factories are children. They are generally employed in rooms well inside the factory to hide them from sight. They do not get any holidays except for time off on a Friday afternoon. Friday is a day of worship in Bangladesh.

Hazardous working environment

This is Ali Hossain, a child laborer. He works in a silver factory in Keraniganj in Dhaka, almost day and night. The long hours and deafening noise are ruining his health and thus his future. Needless to say, full-time work also contributes to high school drop-out rates.

Children in the tannery factories

According to the 2006 Labor Law, the minimum legal working age in Bangladesh is 14. But here is 12 year old Asif from Noakhali, an admistrative district in Bangladesh. He works at least 12 hours a day drying chemically treated leather in a tannery factory in Dhaka’s Hazaribag. In this way he earns enough money to keep himself and his mother.

Rabbi with his mother

Rabbi is from Chandpur. He works with his mother in this plastic processing factory in Kamrangi Char which produces bottles. The owner of the factory is said to be against employing child labor. Rabbi only got the job, because his mother pleaded with the owner saying that she did not earn enough to support them.

Child helpers in 'human hauler'

Some 93 percent of child laborers work in the informal sector – in small factories, in home-based businesses and domestic employment and on the streets, like these human haulers on the streets of Dhaka. The kids help passengers onto vans and buses used for public transportation. And not surprisingly are often the victims of accidents.

Children from the brick field

Brick-chipping is common in Bangladesh. Many children work as chippers in these brick fields in Amin Bazar in Dhaka. They are paid 100-120 taka for carrying a thousand bricks. These bricks are very heavy, around three kilograms. But each child has to carry six to 16 bricks at a time and take them to the brick depot.

Physical and mental health in danger

This is Rahim. Long hours, low or no wages, poor food, isolation and hazardous working conditions, like in this lead factory, can severely affect the physical and mental health of children like Rahim. More so as child laborers are also vulnerable to other abuses such as racial discrimination, mistreatment and sexual abuse.

Other suggestions also include imposing more punitive fines on employers found to be employing under-age workers and reviewing inspection arrangements for the garment sector to ensure that factories comply with national laws.

How do you see the chances of child labor being eliminated from Bangladesh in the near future?

It will be possible to gradually reduce and eventually eliminate the phenomenon of child labor if actions are taken on several fronts: managing increasing urbanization and poverty reduction in slums, improving education (particularly for slum children that are currently left marginalized), increasing inspections, fines and the effectiveness of regulations on business operations.

Maria Quattri is researcher with the Overseas Development Institute and joint author of the report Child Labor and Education - A Survey of Slum Settlements in Dhaka.

The interview was conducted by Srinivas Mazumdaru.