We can't be passive bystanders while children suffer
Sometimes I wonder how the future generations will view our time. For example, what will be their reaction when they come to know of the child labour situation in our society? Many of us recall the history of slavery with horror, but are we as conscious about the slave-like condition in which children work at homes, shops, factories, etc.?
Around 1.7 million children are engaged in child labour in Bangladesh (Child Labour Survey, 2013). Children work in different sectors which include agriculture, manufacturing, construction, wholesale, retail, transport, and others. According to the Labour Act 2006, the minimum age of employment is 14 years. But children between12-14 years could be involved in light work if that does not affect their education and development. However, the definition of light work and the conditions of employment are not specified. The government has declared 38 sectors as hazardous for children; nobody under 18 years should be employed in those jobs. But 1.2 million children are still employed in jobs that are hazardous. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child (UNCRC) Committee has expressed concerns that children are employed in welding, transportation, auto workshop, tobacco factory and battery recharging.
In Bangladesh, weak enforcement of the existing laws makes working children very vulnerable to violence, abuse, and exploitation. Children, in general, usually have to work for long hours (in many cases, in very harsh conditions); they thus face severe economic exploitation. Often times, some child workers are subject to physical, mental, and sexual violence by their employers. Child domestic workers remain particularly vulnerable, as they work inside homes and are not 'visible'. Many of us can recall the killings of two child workers (Rajon and Rakib), and the associated brutalities that shocked the entire nation. Extreme cases of torture faced by working children get reported by the media and legal actions are being initiated. In most cases, families of the concerned children cannot even continue the cases due to the pressure from the perpetrators (who are usually from higher socio-economic backgrounds). However, the sufferings of thousands of other working children are not reported and remain hidden. Shouldn't we be shamed that we accept this and let children suffer in silence?
Child labour is a complex issue. Familial poverty is one of the root causes. Many children don't just support themselves through their income, their families are also financially dependent on them.
The quality of education is another challenge. When children drop out of schools, parents engage them in some sort of work. I have met many parents who have taken the child to a factory and asked the owner to train him. It was not due to economic necessity; for them, it was a way to ensure that the child gains skills and finds employment in future. The associated costs of education including uniforms, fees required for additional tuition after school etc. also prevent many children from attending schools, and they end up with a job, mostly in informal settings.
Moreover, there is widespread acceptance of child labour in Bangladesh. Many people do not see any problem in employing children where they work from dawn till midnight! They don't have a problem when a child works in their home while their own children attend school and enjoy childhood. In addition, many parents of working children are also not aware of the negative consequences of child labour and the importance of education. Sometimes, they also do not find education to be relevant for their children.
Experience from different countries, including Bangladesh, show that children can be gradually removed from hazardous labour by improving the economic condition of the families, improving children's access to education and vocational training, and sensitising the employers on the negative impacts of employing children in hazardous jobs. If children are engaged in jobs that are not hazardous then they should be supported through education, vocational training, and capacity development on business and life skills. They need to be linked with decent job placements. Working with the employers so that they follow code of conduct in treating children is critical.
Bangladesh has a National Child Labour Elimination Policy (2010-2015) as well as a Child Labour National Action Plan (2012-2016). However, progress in implementation has been very limited. In 2015, the government approved the Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy, which is an attempt to recognise domestic work as 'work' and specifies conditions that the workers in formal sector take for granted. The government is willing to enact a new law on the protection of domestic workers. The National Child Labour Welfare Council and two divisional level Child Labour Welfare Council have been formed, and they have already started work. There are initiatives to strengthen the labour inspection system which includes compliance on child labour issues. But the number of labour inspectors is insufficient for the size of the Bangladesh workforce. There is hardly any monitoring of child labour in the informal sector where children are most vulnerable.
Can we be proud about our economic progress if our children continue to work in inhumane conditions? Addressing child labour demands a pragmatic approach. There are some recommendations that can be followed to ensure that the kids of our country are not employed in hazardous conditions. First of all, there should be proper enforcement of existing laws and implementation of policies related to child labour. Secondly, the definition of "light work" and associated penalty (in case of violation) has to be clarified in the Labour Act 2006. Moreover, child domestic work should be included in the list of hazardous work and perpetrators of violence against working children should be brought to justice. National and community based child protection mechanisms should also be strengthened. Awareness should be created among parents/caregivers on the negative consequences of child labour and the importance of investing in children's education.
Most importantly, social acceptance of child labour, including child domestic work, should be challenged, and the general public must learn to treat children with respect and dignity. They should not be passive bystanders when children suffer from torture. Instead, ordinary citizens should take actions to prevent and respond to violence faced by working children.
The writer is Director of Child Protection, Save the Children.