The Covid-19 pandemic has undone a lot of progress towards ending child labour, globally. What can Bangladesh do to recover some of that progress?
We do have a lot of legislative measures in Bangladesh, but there still need to be reforms in terms of defining the age of the child that is consistent with the Children Act 2013 on the rights of the child. The labour law in 2006 focuses more on formal sectors, while children are mainly engaged in non-formal sectors, so that needs to be brought under the legal system. The government-issued circulars of engagement of children in hazardous labour lists 38 different categories of jobs involving hazardous labour. I think we need to simplify this system. There's also a huge gap in the child protection system and we need to strengthen the social service workforce so that families have access to social workers and can prevent the push and pull factors that lead these children into hazardous labour or to being on the streets.
Domestic labour of children is still widespread but often overlooked. What can be done to stop this form of child labour?
In the domestic sphere, it is mostly girls being employed and there is no regulatory framework to oppose this, because in this particular category of "domestic labour" there is no required minimum age, no fixed payment or working hours, and no union to protect these workers. These children also don't have access to education unless the employer takes initiative for it. Various studies have shown that this is a hazardous form of child labour and it is very risky for children. Many of these child domestic workers, particularly the girls, are experiencing high levels of violence, abuse and exploitation. If they are not compliant they face violence, including corporal punishment, sexual violence and even rape. The government has adopted the Domestic Worker Protection and Welfare Policy 2015, but it does not list it as hazardous work.
Many families send their children to domestic work, mostly due to poverty, but there is also a lack of awareness about the impact on children of this work. We need to be doing much larger awareness campaigns, strengthening our social protection support (such as cash for families that are in certain levels of poverty), and we need to be ensuring that children are going to school. We also need to empower girls with life skills and other employability skills so that this is not their only option to get out of poverty. You can really understand why a family would think this is the best option because the assumption is that, in that environment, they will be protected. Awareness campaigns can make people understand that this has a lifelong impact on children and they do miss out on other skill sets that would enable them to help their families to get out of poverty. Otherwise, it creates a cycle where they just stay where they are, which is very dangerous.
What are the main challenges when it comes to implementing awareness campaigns about child labour and combatting it on a large scale?
I think we are lucky that there are government counterparts in Bangladesh that are really committed to the cause. UNICEF works with the Ministry of Social Welfare (MSW) and the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (MOWCA) on strengthening the child protection and the social service systems. We are looking into how we can expand them, but it needs to be a national approach so that every location can have a social worker. At the moment, there are just over 3,500 government social workers and we need around 100,000 if we are going to reach about 68,000 villages across the country, where social/community workers can work at the grassroots levels to prevent much of the damage caused by hazardous child labour.
Unfortunately due to Covid-19, children have been out of school for a long time and it is easier now for them to be pushed into the workforce. I think being out of school for such a long time is going to have a really big impact on their protection, which we will have to deal with. We also need to make sure we have a child responsive social protection system for children who are very vulnerable. Their families are supposedly receiving cash grants, but we need to ensure that the most vulnerable families are getting them so their children are protected from being pushed into dangerous labour and can eventually go back to school.
Do you think the proposed FY2021-22 budget allocations put enough emphasis on protecting children from child labour?
It is never enough. In any country, this area is not funded to the extent that we would want. But the good thing is that it has at least been more prioritised with time, and it's really great progress that it has started to increase. People are starting to see that not supporting child protection will have long-term development impacts on the country. The outcomes for child labourers will be far more negative and this will cost the country a lot more money when they are in adulthood. The cost of that in percentage of the GDP is much higher than people would imagine. Child protection has to be more than social protection or cash transfer. We have to look at a more systemic approach on how to increase the social service workforce to physically work with families and communities to shift their thinking regarding child labour. However, the recent budget does not reflect that. There has not been a massive increase in social workers, for example.
In view of the pandemic, how likely do you think it is that the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 8.7 of ending all forms of child labour by 2025 will be achieved?
I think it is definitely achievable in Bangladesh because there is a lot of commitment within the MSW and MOWCA towards these SDGs, and we are looking into how we can extend these systems down to the grassroots levels. At the moment, UNICEF has a partnership with the Department of Social Services to create evidence and formulate policies, strategies and legal measures to make the Children Act 2013 more effective, and this includes ensuring the Act has a budget attached to it as soon as possible. They are also very supportive in strengthening the social service workforce. Last year, social workers took over 180,000 calls on the child helpline, which is four times the number of calls they would usually take in a year. This was not only due to the support of UNICEF but also through the government's commitment to not let any child's call go unanswered. I feel very positive about Bangladesh achieving this target also because the government is always open to any creative solutions that we come up with. The child protection service hubs we put up on streets in various cities (with the DSS and MOWCA) last year attracted thousands of children, many of whom were reunited with their families and taken back home because they had access to help from social workers in the hubs.
What factors do you think drove child labour during the pandemic?
One of the main driving factors was that children were not in school and also did not have access to digital devices (and to online opportunities for education). A lot of people lost their jobs and families were struggling, so they would take any option to earn money and sometimes that would have to be through their children. I do think not having a child protection system that works at the grassroots levels impacts whether someone can intervene. Families resort to child labour due to desperation and not many options being available to them. They are trying as hard as they can to survive and no one should judge them for that. I have been doing child protection for nearly 25 years now and I have never really met families that want to hurt their children. It's always because they don't know any better. They are always looking for options for survival for their children and for themselves. That is why the help of even one social worker, which does not cost a lot of money, can save a life or change a family's trajectory. What was very helpful during the lockdown was the government recognising these social workers as being essential, which allowed them to continue working during that time.
In general, what areas must Bangladesh work on first and foremost to eliminate the worst forms of child labour?
We have to first look into the industries that produce these kinds of labour. There needs to be a multi-sectoral approach, with the justice, social service and health systems involved. In Bangladesh, though people do not want to talk about it because of how horrifying it is, there is sexual exploitation and abuse of children in child labour. We have to create systems that can respond to this. We have to look at some of the jobs which are not traditionally in the lists of hazardous forms of child labour and try to minimise those as well. It comes down to awareness-building, having people understand the negative long-term impacts on children of child labour, and the need to have a child protection system that reaches the grassroots level—which we don't have here yet. The Children Act 2013 is a really important piece of legislation, but it doesn't have agreed rules or a budget attached to it yet, which has hindered its implementation. We're working with the government now to try and overcome that, which is essential in protecting children. But I really want it to go across that, I've worked in many countries around the world, and the government workers I've worked with here really are committed and they really care. So what we need to do now is to match that with a budget, and we can definitely change the world in the next few years.