Trading with tiny hands: Do we really care?


On June 12, Bangladesh, along with other countries, observed World Day Against Child Labour, with elaborate programmes. There were press notes, messages, seminars, roundtable discussions, talk shows, texts and posters distributed around the country. Heartbreaking stories of young child workers made us emotional for a day. Some key people even flew to Geneva to inform the world of our progress and also to mobilise the international community in our favour. Everything was done for the good cause - elimination of child labour from our country.  While we were busy speaking about their lives and sufferings, ironically, their small hands continued to work to serve our needs.  

This year's theme was "In conflicts and disasters, protect children from child labour", a timely call indeed when the year began with devastating floods and cyclones, inundating the farmlands of our country. Around the world, 1.5 billion people are affected by conflicts, violence and fragility; of them 200 million fall victim to annual disasters; one-third of these people are children and of them, about 168 million are engaged in child labour. 

Children victims are at the frontlines of any natural or manmade disaster. At a Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics programme that unveiled a report titled "Bangladesh Disaster-related Statistic 2015: Climate Change and Natural Disaster Perspectives", under the Impact of Climate Change on Human Life (ICCHL) Programme, held on June 26, 2016, after effects of natural disasters were revealed. The report showed that damaged schools, communications failure, reduced household income, and sickness had a toll on the lives of children and their education. The Centre for Environment and Geographic Information further stated that 0.1 million people become homeless every year in the country due to river erosion alone. Natural disasters affect the poorer classes most for predictable reasons, and children, as part of the family, suffer most. 

During the recent flood in Sunamganj and in haor areas, we learnt that there was no advance preparation or warning system to deal with the upcoming challenges. In fact, when you think of it, except for cyclones, no effective systematic approach has actually been developed yet in Bangladesh to manage other natural disasters. In Bangladesh, river erosion, flood and cyclones are among the prime reasons that force children to leave their homes in the village to go to the cities in search of work. A BBS report says that every day, 959 people, including children, migrate to Dhaka city in search for a livelihood due to natural disasters and effects of climate change.  

There is, however, not much data on the number of children affected by the flood of this year or other years, and there's little, if any, information on the number of children who lose their homes during such disasters, and are forced to separate from their families when they leave their schools to migrate to cities to join the workforce. We can, however, assume that the number will be significant. Do we know that one in every 16 children nationally and one in five children in some upazilas  have joined the workforce (Ending Child Labour in Bangladesh, published jointly by UNICEF, BBS, BIDS, 2015); of the 12 lakh children, 80,000 are employed in hazardous conditions. More alarmingly, about 4 lakh kids are employed with no pay while 85 percent of these kids are doing the job of adults only to earn a few hundred bucks; the maximum a child worker is paid comes down to Tk. 5,500 (Prothom Alo, January 30, 2016). 

In addition to natural disasters, children are separated from their families and join the workforce due to family crisis and conflicts, death or abandonment of their father, their parents' divorce. In the absence of family care, they are forced to fend for themselves. During such crucial times, some 'middlemen' take advantage of the situation, taking charge of the vulnerable child to enrol them in work that can be hazardous and even life-threatening. 

Child labour is nurtured in our society, despite the initiatives of the state, non-government organisations and rights organisations. It is far easier to exploit children, and most importantly, their labour is cheap! The government lists 38 kinds of hazardous labour for children, but it is yet to consider domestic work as hazardous labour, despite the fact that many employers harass and abuse their child employees with impunity. Of course, there is a vague notion that we help these poor children and their families "survive" by offering them food and shelter. But we do not tell the real story, and how we exploit them for our comfort. The projects undertaken to protect these children are mostly superficial and temporary. Moreover, what happens when the projects end? 

Still, some progress has been made. We have a national policy, laws and a plan of action, along with the international protocols that we have ratified, to deal with the issue of child labour. Our Labour Law dictates that no child under the age of 14 can be employed, but it has also kept the provision of 'light work' for children who are 12 and above! However, the Ministry of Labour and Employment has made extensive plans, created the National Child Labour Welfare Council, and an inspection department. The district inspectors are trained and placed in cities around the country. Last year, during observance of the World Day Against Child Labour, the honourable State Minister for Ministry of Labour and Employment declared that by 2021, the country will achieve the target of SDG 8.7, which requires to "take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, eradicate forced labour; and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms." 

The roadmap of the government should consider a total mapping of the current situation, to assess and to avoid overlapping. Moreover, under any circumstance, the state should prioritise the idea of 'school first'. Skill development programmes for dropouts and those already in the workforce should also be considered. Social protection measures to cover cost of living and education of the children of the vulnerable families could prevent kids from joining the workforce. City corporations and pourashavas should also be linked to the implementation of the Labour Act, as child labour is largely concentrated in these areas, which also cover 34.28 percent of the total population (UN World Urbanization Prospects, 2015). In this regard, inclusion of a strict clause in the Municipal Acts is necessary to refrain city-dwellers from engaging children in child labour. Moreover, the monitoring process of the Ministry of Labour and Employment need to be far more rigorous, and that can be done through ensuring the active role of the government and other state actors. Finally, raising public awareness is a must, as is the wide dissemination of the hotline number 109 that directs to the National Helpline Centre for Violence Against Women and Children. 

An annual report on 'Child Labour and the Progress We Made' could also benefit us, especially in achieving SDG 8.7, and also to report back to the UNCRC on Clauses 74 and 75 before March 2021.   

In order to respond to the calls of the World Day Against Child labour 2017, we need to return to legal documents like the Disaster Management Act 2012, Standing Orders on Disaster (SOD) 2010, the National Plan for Disaster Management, National Strategy on the Management of Disaster and Climate Induced Internal Displacement, etc to find the ways and means to protect children from the aftermaths of disasters. Through concerted efforts, we can free ourselves from the curse of child labour. 

The writer is a development worker.