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Thursday, 11 June 2009

Child Labour Day

Today is the World Against Child Labour Day, I discovered this only this morning when I was riding back from my friend's house where we were having breakfast; hundreds of children marching and chanting slogans. After rushing back to get my camera, we rode to the front of the march and watched the children go past.

The march was organised by the local NGO 'solidarity', which provides a savings and loans service to the child labourers, taking 10 Tk (10 pence) a week from the little that they keep to help them have some financial independence and to build up a pot of money in case they need to run away from their families or they become sick etc.

After the procession went past, 7 boys walked up to me and asked me what I was doing, so I asked them a few questions.

I am now able to paint a brief picture of 3 boys that I talked to.

Basen was the first, he was the tallest and the oldest in the group, at 15 years old (but he looked like a small and skinny 17). Basen worked extremely long hours, from 8am in the morning until 12am at night, 6 days a week. Basen told me that he had to work otherwise he wouldn't be able to eat. I asked him how much earned a day and he replied "40 Tk, but my master gives me two parotha (small pieces of oily bread) and a banana 3 times a day". 40 Tk is 40 pence - enough to buy 2 kgs of rice.

Ruka was a rickshaw wallah, and earned the highest salary of them all - up to 100 Tk or 1 pound a day. He was 13 years old, and was incredibly malnourished. He said that his parents took all of his money. Ruka was very quiet and was quite spaced out, his eyes glazed over and his breathing seemed weak. Ruka's chest bones stuck out and the NGO worker that was translating for me knocked his chest to demonstrate to me, making a hollow and disturbing sound. He then said that cycle rickshaws are very hard work, especially for a small child, and they needed a higher calorific intake to compensate, which this child certainly wasn't getting. After asking, he said that he had 2 meals a day of plain rice and chilly, maybe with some sobji(vegetable mix) on Fridays.

Finally, I spoke to Rasheed. It was Rasheed that brought me to tears when I got back to the office and had some time to myself. Rasheed was working 8am to 5pm and then 7pm to 10pm at a welder's. Rasheed was earning 60 Tk. a day (60 pence), which is 5.5 pence an hour, and he gets no food. Rasheed was 14. Rasheed had been working at the welder's for 4 years and had only been payed a salary for the last 2 years, so from the ages of 10 to 12, Rasheed was working an 8 hour day (the extra 3 hours only started with the salary), using hazardous equipment and only a pair of plastic 'sun-glasses' for protection from the bright sparks from welding. And all that time, for what was then nearly 1/5 of his life at 10 years old, he was working full time for no salary, his parents kicking him out to do it 6 mornings a week. All he received in payment were 'snacks'. Rasheed then pulled his eyelid down and showed us how yellow the whites of his eyeballs were, and that small black specs from the sparks of molten steel and iron that had pierced his eyes. Stupidly, I was so shocked that I didn't remember to take a picture.
Rasheed's family took 50 of the 60 Tk that he earned daily, and he invested the 10 Tk a week he could afford in the 'solidarity' scheme, leaving him just enough to eat just enough to live. the 50 Tk went towards rent and the younger children, and he had to contribute towards meals with the 10 Tk left over when there wasn't enough, and it sounded like the only thing his parents provided him with was shelter, food, and the occasional beating.

When I asked the children what they wanted to tell people in England, the reply was snappy and strong and simple. "we want our freedom; we want to go to school"

From this picture you must be able to see the age of the children on the march - all of these children are in full time employment and were marching in protest to child labour worldwide.

50% of children in Bangladesh drop out of school by "grade 5" which is somewhere towards the end of primary school, at around age 10. I have met 2 girls that were in "grade 5" that were going to be married off by their parents but the school teacher intervened. 10 years old is really far too young to grow up this quickly, especially as the children are far more innocent at this age than children in England, with no brazen Hollywood films to learn from and a strongly conservative culture. The Bangladeshi people (excuse the generalisation) also seem to be very emotional and sensitive, so the emotional trauma suffered by these children going from innocence to the worst aspects of experience in a matter of days is just beyond my comprehension.
In 2002/03, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) conducted the second National Child Labour Survey (NCLS). They concluded (and bear in mind that the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics consistently comes up with the mildest and most conservative statistics on any given situation in Bangladesh - even down to the population which it puts at 130 million when there is thought to be between 150 to 185 million) that there are 4.9 million working children — 14.2 per cent of the total 35.06 million children in the age group of 5-14 years. Working here means working - there is no such thing as part time work in Bangladesh.
It just goes beyond belief that they had to lower the age range down to 5 to come up with a proportion of the children in full time employment.
You might point the finger at the employers, the politicians, the ILO, the parents, the schools, whoever you think is responsible, but it really isn't as easy as that. Let's try and have a cold look at who is responsible or who has the power to change the situation.
The children themselves: apart from going on marches (which they are doing), I don't know what they could do, if they ran away then they would have to work somewhere else and would almost find it harder to survive as they would have no community to rely on in case of an emergency. They really don't seem to have much opportunity to liberate themselves.
The parents: I need to explore this more before commenting fully, but children seem to be either an asset or a burden depending on whether they are a boy or a girl in society here. If a boy is born then they celebrate the expected income and support over the rest of their lives, and if it is a girl, then the parents look to marry them off as quickly as possible so that there is one less mouth to feed. This is a complete over simplification and an extreme way of describing it, but it was said to me in these words on more than one occasion by Bangladeshi people themselves, and it seems to hold true to what's actually happening to the children. The parents could just eat less, sacrifice more, and let their children attend school - but many of them don't see the point as poor standard primary education that finishes at 1pm in most cases as the teachers usually slack off 3 hours early to earn more money privately tutoring the richer children (the claim is that they are under payed by the state but I know a committed teacher that manages fine, doing his job professionally and getting a lot of flack for it from both the other teachers and some of the parents, but he says that he's not there for the adults, he's there for the children).
Things are tight for the parents; 85% of the country earns less than $2 a day, and we are probably talking about the families that earn less than $1 a day. Do you feed everyone and prevent as much sickness and disease as possible and send your child to work, or do you let the rest of the family get dragged down, withhold medical treatment, a relatively balanced diet, accept a lower social status (mainly decided on how nice your clothes are - people even borrow their neighbour's clothes if they are going into town so they don't feel ashamed), and suffer the physical effects of malnutrition all for a few extra years of what you see as fun for your child, in an environment where children's education isn't valued?
Can you blame the employer? Well there are certainly some very rich businessmen that are probably exploiting children and underpaying them, and those that are living in luxury I would certainly say have a responsibility to look after their employees' basic needs at the expense of their personal opulence and pleasure, but most of the employers of child labour run small businesses on someone else's land. These small businesses are in fierce competition and there aren't that many services to choose from when a population has limited spending power, so there is fierce competition and you sink or swim - employing adults only would be an extra expense that would handicap many businesses and probably see their bankruptcy. Also, if the children are given better working conditions, then wont more parents be tempted to send their children to work?
Can you blame the teachers, schools and government for not focusing on the importance of education? Certainly, there's always more to be done, and the corruption in schools in terms of private tuition is something to be overcome, but without a national income tax how does the government raise the money to pay for the schools?
The accountability and responsibility need to be put higher up the pyramid than that. Yes the community is to blame, yes there is need for culture change, but education and this kind of poverty are relatively new concepts in Bangladesh, industry hasn't been there forever.
For me, it's the corrupt political system, rampant free market capitalism as promoted by the IMF and other international financial institutions, the history of occupation by Pakistan and Britain that failed to establish a decent education system when they had the opportunity, and all those corrupt politicians and "business leaders" and cabinet ministers sitting in Bogra Chittagong and Dhaka, buying new plasma television sets, living in luxury accommodation and driving high end European made cars, while the rest of the country is pining for food. I don't usually have class war mentality, but in Bangladesh, the people that I'm describing have compromised the the functioning of society for corrupt exuberant personal benefit, and it is obviously, starkly, transparently destructive.
In terms of legislation,
Bangladesh has ratified:
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child;
ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (No. 182);
ILO Night Work of Young Persons (Industry) Convention, (No. 6);
ILO Night Work of Young Persons (Industry Revised) Convention (No. 90);
ILO Minimum Age (Trimmers and Stockers) Convention (No. 15);
ILO Minimum Age (Industry Revised) Convention (No. 59);
ILO Forced Labour Convention (No. 29);
ILO Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (No. 105);
Bangladesh even has labour rights and the rights of the child embedded in their constitution, created after the liberation war against Pakistan in 1971:

Article 20 refers to work as a right and a duty and a matter of honour for every citizen who is capable of working;
Article 14 states that it shall be the fundamental responsibility of the State to emancipate workers from all sorts of exploitation;
Article 34 states that all forms of forced labour are prohibited and any contravention of this prohibition shall be an offence punishable in accordance with the law;
Article 28 of the Constitution empowers the State to make special provisions for the benefit of children.

According to the Labour Act (2006) the minimum age for admission to work is 14 years and 18 years for hazardous work. Further, light work for children between the ages of 12 - 14 years is defined as non-hazardous work that does not impede education.

Other laws that define the rights and protections due to children are:
The Children Act (1974);
The Children Rules (1976);
The Bonded Labour Act, 2006;
The Suppression of Violence against Women and Children Act (2000); and
The Compulsory Primary Education Act, 1990.
Despite all these pieces of paper, child labour is not yet illegal in Bangladesh, although labour in factories under the age of 14 is, and anyway, even if it was, there's no way that a poor child would be able to use the corrupt legal system to prosecute the employer, or even afford a lawyer or the court fees.
Bangladesh continues to be a shining example of a nearly perfect 'free' market and the benefits of growth, being one of the only countries to continue with a growth rate above 5% this year. The only problem is that in Bangladesh society is so corrupt, and people so self interested, that the only way to make money is to have some in the first place. Where the IMF advocates 'trickle down economics, I call this situation 'trickle up economics'.

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