Children toil in sweatshops
The number of children working at different tailors' shops in Keraniganj on the outskirts of the capital increases manifolds ahead of Eid. The children, some preteens, work only for tips and get no salaries in small businesses that have no fire safety measures. Photo: Firoz Ahmed
While apparel stores in the capital are doing a roaring trade before Eid, the workload for thousands of unpaid children in tailoring factories on the outskirts of the city has multiplied.
Eleven-year-old Jewel works 14 to 18 hours every day at a jeans tailoring factory at Kaliganj Bazar, Keraniganj.
Like him, many children, mostly aged between 10 and 18, work as apprentices at jeans factories in the area. Because they are apprentices, they do not get any salary. For Eid, however, they receive a small, one-off payment, which is decided by the tailors they work for.
When they finish toiling away at the sewing machines in the dead of night, they sleep in the dim, dank factories.
Jewel was brought here by his mother from his hometown Shariatpur two years ago. He had then no idea as to why he had been brought here or what was expected of him.
Another child worker, Md Bojlu, 16, said he had been living in the jeans factory since he had left his village in Bhola six months ago.
Although he does not get paid, Bojlu is glad to have the opportunity to work with a tailor. He hopes that with this experience, he will soon become a tailor himself.
“Besides, depending on the size of his profit, my master will pay me an amount before Eid,” he said with a broad smile.
The building where the boys work is at Kaliganj Bazar. The first two floors of the building, named Hazi Mujibor Mansion, are used as markets while the six up as jeans factories.
The stairs to the upper floors lead to narrow, unlit corridors infested with cockroaches and flies with the air reeking of decomposed garbage.
On either side of the corridors are small rooms where 10 to 20 workers, mostly children, slave away at the sewing machines.
The damp and dingy rooms are poorly ventilated and many even lack a window. There is no way these factories have fire exits, fire extinguishers or other safety measures.
There are about 150-175 such commercial buildings in Keraniganj, where at least two lakh people work in about 10,000 factories, said Mizanur Rahman, president of Keraniganj Garment Traders and Shop Owners' Association.
SM Khalil, secretary of Keraniganj Ready-made Garments Sramik League, said, “In my estimation there are more than 11,000 child workers in the area. But no official statistics about the actual figure are available, as the factories are not monitored by any authority.”
About such blatant violation of the labour law, Mizanur said, “If we had not employed these children here, they would have become thieves and muggers, increasing crime rates across the country.”
Shahjahan, owner of the jeans factory, said he had done them a favour by bringing them from their villages and giving them work.
Informed about the factories, Labour and Employment Secretary Mikail Shipar said, “We did not know about it. Now that we know, we will send a team of inspectors there and make sure the factories comply with the labour law.”
Labour leaders think that the secretary's ignorance about the situation means the labour ministry is incapable of carrying out its responsibilities.
The factories have been there for about 20 years, said Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, assistant executive director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies.
“The ignorance proves that the government has little accountability to these workers."