Child Labour in Bangladesh

Md Siddikur Rahman, Senior Team Leader-Future of Work in Bangladesh, CARE Bangladesh. 

According to the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO), “Today, throughout the world, around 218 million children work, many full-time. They do not go to school and have little or no time to play. Many do not receive proper nutrition or care. They are denied the chance to be children. More than half of them are exposed to the worst forms of child labour such as work in hazardous environments, slavery, or other forms of forced labour.”

As in many developing countries, child labour is one of the prime development challenges in Bangladesh, hindering the physical, psychological, and cognitive development of children and causing significant damage to their well-being.

Definitions. By definition, any child who is 5 to 11 years of age and working for any period of time in a non-hazardous job is considered a child labourer. According to the National Child Labour Survey (2013), children who are 5 to 17 years of age and engage in over 42 hours of work every week in any form of non-hazardous work are also considered as child labour in Bangladesh. The Survey listed 18 types of hazardous jobs in which many children under the age of 17 work, such as shoe factories, agriculture, motor workshops, and the transport industry. For these, they are considered as child labourers irrespective of the number of hours they work every week.

Current Situation. Currently in Bangladesh, 3.45 million children aged 5-17 are economically active and most work under hazardous conditions. Over 90% of economically active children are employed in the informal sector with no provision of set working hours, leave, appointment letters, organizational health and safety and other protection measures. The vast informal economy is almost out of the radar of the labour inspectorate which has relatively poor capacities and workforce.

Child labour in Bangladesh is caused by both pull and push factors. The key pull factors include:

  • Children can easily be exploited because of their lack of negotiation capacities.
  • Children are naturally introverted with poorer information on rights at work.
  • High demand for domestic chores specially in taking care of younger kids in affluent families.
  • High demand of children from the families of ethnic and religious minority because of their low bargaining ability.
  • Weak implementation of legal protection mechanisms to address child labour.

The main push factors are:

  • Parental poverty and the requirement of supplementary income for families
  • Natural catastrophes (cyclone, river erosion and draught) causing the displacement of people.
  • Low awareness of the value of education.
  • Inability of the parents to afford formal skills training and hence they push the children to informal industries

Consequences of child labour: Child labour fuels dropouts from upper primary and lower secondary levels of education, and involves children in hazardous work in the informal economy. Bangladesh experiences a sizeable dropout rate of about 18% at the primary level, and a massive 50% at the secondary level. Because these children predominantly work in the informal sector, their income is not considered in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) calculation, which leads to an erroneous calculation of the country’s per capita income. In relation to domestic work, there is wide scope for violence and harassment in the houses and many of them go unreported.
Bangladesh faces an acute skills gap in the formal  labour-intensive industries. For instance, the garment industries lack skilled workers and thus engage many unskilled people. Since people cannot afford formal training, they tend to informal training and apprenticeship leading to a gross violation of labour rights.

Key measures undertaken to address child labour: The Bangladesh Government targeted eliminating hazardous child labour by 2022 and all kinds of child labour by 2025. Policy guidelines including the National Child Labour Elimination Policy 2010, the Children Act 2013, the National Children Policy 2011 and the National Plan of Action are the main drivers. The government ratified the International Labour Organization Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour and recently ratified the ILO Convention 138 on the minimum age of work. The government also ratified the fundamental ILO Conventions on forced labour and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). In compliance with these international standards, the government amended the Bangladesh Labour Act twice in the recent past after the historic Rana Plaza collapse in 2013.

In addition to government efforts, many other programmes have been undertaken by NGOs on this front, but the elimination of child labour is nowhere near completion.

What needs to be done more:

  • There should be zero tolerance to the dropout of children from any level of education and their engagement in work. Hence, vast social protection programmes should be undertaken for both children and their parents to ensure that parents do not need to send their young kids to work for financial reason.
  • Market-responsive, uniform technical and vocational education and training (TVET) should be introduced at the upazilla (sub-district) level also making sure that youths are skilled workforce and employable at both local and overseas markets.
  • There should be a win-win partnership between training institutes and private sector employers based on the German model of dual apprenticeship and job placement. Brands and buyers of garment commodities, their suppliers (tier one industries) need to come forward to attain this goal.
  • Implementation of legal measures and policy are crucial to end child labour. Law enforcing agencies have to take strict action to this end.
  • Bangladesh Labour Act should be fully in line with the international labour and other standards.
  • Employer organizations and worker unions should have tangible initiatives on the elimination of children labour, and harmonized programmes should be undertaken involving the NGOs, relevant ministries/department, employers and unions.
  • Development partners should come forward with greater efforts in collaboration with NGOs and the government to eliminate child labour in Bangladesh.

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