There are three types of lies- lies, damned lies, and statistics. How good it would have been had these famous words by Benjamin Disraeli held while analyzing the statistics on child labor in Bangladesh. Statistical data states that Bangladesh has a child labor workforce of 4.8 million which translates to 12.6% of children between the age of 5 and 14, and no, these are not lies or damn lies, they are statistics and the truth.
Babu, all of 8 years, toils for 64 hours a week at a brick factory at Narayanganj. He is one amongst many who have given up studies for earning a wage to support his family. On most mornings, 15-year-old Iqbal arrives at his workplace in Dhaka; he works as a panel beater, working on cars for up to 13 hours before he can even think of going home. Iqbal earns meager wages for all his toil and he has been doing this since he was 12 years old.
Poverty, bordering on penury, forced him to abandon school and plunge into full-time employment. In another instance, 14-year-old Shilpa studied up to grade 5 before moving to Dhaka from the rural area and taking up employment with a garment factory stitching clothes. It pains to hear Shilpa speak, she states that while it makes her happy to be able to contribute to her family’s well-being, she does not harbor any dreams of a good life, or of ever going back to school for completing her education.
The childhood years are the ones that most people cherish and yearn to go back to. Not so for the Iqbal, Babu and Shilpas’ of Bangladesh. Those fortunate to escape the tentacles of devouring poverty, make their way through schools, colleges, and eventually live life by settling down to a meaningful job, others, children of a lesser God, strive relentlessly from the age when their strength allows them to take up menial jobs. While the educated seek to find meaning for their lives, life seeks out these less fortunate, impoverished children to teach them how to survive.
The experiences of these helpless children are indicators of the most pernicious aspects of child labor: Children are deprived of the education that they need to succeed, in their bid to improve their families’ economic prospects. The researchers from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the UK, very aptly summed up the situation- the above-stated cycle, where children make an early entry into the chaotic world of insecure, unskilled, low-paid work are most unlikely to assimilate the education they need to secure decent work and break the transmission of poverty across generations. Long-term, child labor keeps families poor.
International Labour Organisation has charted a carefully worded definition of “child labor“. It has been defined as any work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. So all work that a child does is not child labor, activities, like helping parents or assisting in a family business, are usually not construed as child labor.
Interestingly, Bangladesh doesn’t document or define the term “child labor“, instead they speak about “child engaged in labor” or “working child”, which in Bangla is “srome niyojito sishu” or “sromojibi sishu”.
Around the middle of 2019, a piece of truly ironic information came to light, a charity T-shirt sold in the UK was being manufactured in Bangladesh by impoverished working children. In this discovery, the irony lies in the fact that the “Girl Power” T-shirts were “all about inspiring and empowering girls” and the £28 T-shirts donated £10 to a charity that supplied digital books to poverty-stricken children in Africa. All this, while the workers manufacturing the T-shirts earned only 42p and were sacked for protesting and asking for higher wages.
The Government of Bangladesh is aware of the extent and amount of work that needs to be done to contain the ills of child labor. Just after the formation of Bangladesh, the Children Act 1974 was enacted, twenty years later, the National Children’s Policy 1994 came into being. Further progress in this respect brought about the National Action Plan for Children in 2005-2010. Ultimately in 2010, the enactment of the National Child Labour Elimination Policy 2010 happened and it is considered to be a step in the right direction for tackling the issue of child labor.
There is much that is needed to be done and it is not only legislation and laws that need to be framed and implemented, but it is also the social fabric that needs an overhaul. Identifying areas where the incidence of child labor is high and taking the help of technology to eliminate such jobs would be a welcoming move. Stringent and exemplary punishment for child trafficking and special protection for girl children would also save the lives of many hapless children who live in the fringes of penury.
Non-government agencies can contribute by helping children from underprivileged sections of the society to get educated. The educated people of the country can do their part by pledging to do something for the upliftment of these impoverished children. In Kolkata, India, there is one lady who runs a school that admits children from parents who are poor and have been convicted of criminal offenses, serving their terms in prison. Similar, brave endeavors from the young, educated class of the country will be a big step towards bringing about a change in the social thought process thereby, helping to reduce inequalities and bringing these children into a healthy social fold.
The two most important steps towards eradicating child labor are through eliminating extreme poverty and hunger, and by achieving universal primary and secondary education for all. This is easier said than done and will need sustained efforts from the government and the people of Bangladesh to achieve. Once achieved, Bangladesh can become truly Sonar Bangla (golden Bangladesh).