Child labour in Bhairab’s shoe factories

Making shoes is so easy a child can do it. That’s what I found out today while touring Bhairab’s shoe factories in the company of one of POPI’s programme officers, Mohammad Azad.

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The acrid smell of glue and burning rubber hit me straight away. Peering through the door of the first factory, I could just about make out five young boys sat on the floor staring at me. Slipping my shoes off, I entered and spoke to the youngest. With Mohammad translating, the boy told me he was just eight years old. I asked him until what time he was working.

“Two or three a.m. sir,” he replied.

Mohammad explained to me that after Ramadan shoe sales surge. Once Ramadan is over, everyone wishes to dress smartly and wear new shoes. In order to meet the demand it’s not uncommon for children to work two shifts each day. Many children become very ill after the Ramadan period due to exhaustion and weakened immune systems.

He went on to explain how the process of shoe making is not so complicated, that’s why children can be employed. Each child has one designated job: one may cut the soles, or may be doing the gluing. The lack of ventilation was the most obvious hazard with no windows and no fan. If the factories do have fans, they are often broken or aren’t working due to regular power cuts. The factory owners also turn them off during the gluing process in order for the shoes to dry better.

Many ‘factories’ are no bigger than twelve feet by twelve and can be more accurately described as small workshops. Children as young as six work in the factories or their own homes, facing hazards that include contact with harmful chemicals and sharp objects, working for long hours under poor lighting in cramped and unsanitary conditions. If that wasn’t enough, they also have to operate hot and heavy machinery and carrying burdensome loads.

Trying to motivate parents to take their children out of the shoe factories and into school is one of the most challenging aspects of POPI’s work, bolstered by various initiatives to support parents and replace their children’s income. One of these initiatives is to provide small low interest loans. Many of the parents have increased their average monthly income by 30%, equivalent to 300 BHT or around £3. Ask people in the development sector what they associate with Bangladesh and they are likely to answer ‘natural disasters and micro-credit,’ particularly since Mohammad Yunus was awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his Grameen Bank. Bangladesh has a remarkable development sector and there are hundreds of micro-credit institutions.

But the scale of the task is overwhelming and the demand for micro-credit far exceeds supply. Bare footed children wander the narrow passageways outnumbering adults by a considerable margin. Almost 50% of the local population are under the age of 18 and it’s not uncommon for each child to have at least five siblings. No parent wants to expose their child to life-threatening environments but the stark fact is that many have no choice. POPI alone cannot provide all the answers.

After visiting three more factories whose owners are still to be persuaded to stop employing child labour, we went to one where the owner has adopted the safe practices POPI are promoting. This project, known as the Sustainable Elimination and Prevention of the Worst Forms of Child Labour or SEPWFCL, aims to reduce child labour in Bhairab’s shoe industry. Propaganda posters covered the walls, advocating the abolition of child labour and listing all the requirements of a safe working environment.

To date POPI have successfully released 500 children; 400 of them are attending the catch-up schools. Encouragingly, the other hundred have now progressed to main stream schools. The grant received from Comic Relief has proved successful and I hope many others follow POPI’s lead. But with 6000 shoe factories still employing children in Bhairab, without practical and comprehensive action from the Bangladesh government, organisations such as POPI can only make a small difference when big change is needed. Eight year old boys shouldn’t be gluing shoes at two a.m.

Christopher Garnett

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