Child labour is a visible part of everyday life in Bangladesh. Children often work in jobs that are hidden from view, such as domestic work, which makes monitoring and regulation difficult. According to UNICEF Bangladesh has a workforce of 7.4 million children aged between 5 and 14. On average, children work 28 hours a week and earn 222 taka (3.3 USD) a week, a pathetic wage hardly commensurate to the labour they put in.
Visiting a cigarette factory, I witnessed girls as young as five rolling cigarettes for the local market. Other examples of child labour include welding, working in brick factories and in auto workshops. Working from an early age impedes the children’s physical growth and intellectual and psychological development, which then also has negative effects on their long-term health and earning potential.
Children are mostly vulnerable on account of physical immaturity and the exposure to unsafe workplaces. Nearly all child labourers (something like 90% of them) are affected by physical pain during working hours or afterwards. What makes the situation worse is that most of the child labourers get no professionally recognised treatment of their health problems.
Bangladesh’ 421,000 child domestic workers (three-quarters are girls) face particular vulnerabilities because they work behind closed doors. Almost all child domestic workers work seven days a week and almost all of them sleep at their employer’s home, meaning that they are completely dependent on their employers and often have restrictions on their mobility and freedom.
Over half report some kind of abuse during their work, such as scolding or slapping. Levels of exploitation are also extremely high, as indicated by the fact that more than half receive no wage at all. Instead, they receive benefits such as accommodation, food and clothing – further reinforcing their dependency on their employer.
Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi children work in hazardous jobs. These are jobs that have been identified by the ILO to expose children to hazards including: physical, psychological or sexual abuse; excessive work hours; an unhealthy environment. For instance, 3,400 children work in brick/stone breaking for the construction industry. Working children often live away from their families in situations where they are exposed to violence, abuse and economic exploitation.
Their vulnerable situation puts them at risk of trafficking as they seek a better life for themselves. A rapid assessment survey of commercially sexually exploited children showed that half worked in other sectors before being lured into sex work. Additionally, more than half had been forced or trafficked into the industry, enticed by false promises of jobs or marriage. The life of a child sex worker is one of violence, exploitation and physical and psychological health problems. The majority of child sex workers are depressed and three-quarters of them had been ill in the three months before the rapid assessment survey took place, many with sexually transmitted diseases. In the 3-12 months prior to the survey, one-quarter of the children were beaten, and another quarter were raped.
It makes for harrowing reading, but there are ways in which you can help:
Floating Education & Health Centre of Bangladesh
During the monsoon season (June to October), children cannot attend school and communities cannot access healthcare facilities because their villages are completely cut off from mainland services by flooding.
£5 could buy a child their school uniform
£20 could pay for a teacher’s salary for a week
Child Labour Elimination Project: the Shoe Factories, Bhairab
In Bhairab, over 3200 children work long hours in small shoe factories which are often one room of an employer’s house: cramped, dark and poorly ventilated. Children, who also sleep in the factories, frequently suffer from injuries and the effects of glue inhalation and many suffer physical and sexual abuse from their employers.
£10 could pay for 5 children previously in child labour to have a health check-up and to receive medical treatment
£30 could pay the running costs for one education centre (for 75 former child labourers) for one month
Child Labour Elimination Project: the Fish Drying Factories, Cox’s Bazar
In Cox’s Bazar there are around 6500 children working in fish drying factories where they suffer severe injuries and illnesses as a result of chemicals, pesticides and sharp tools.
£12 could pay for a former child labourer’s text books and educational materials
£50 could train the parent of a child labourer with the skills to start their own business so that they do not need to send their child to work
I’ve found travelling around Bangladesh challenging, both emotionally and physically, but always rewarding. The people I’ve met have been unfailingly resilient, kind and warm-hearted, welcoming me into their homes, sharing with me the stories of their lives and their hopes for the future. My hope now is that my words will encourage others to donate and help make a difference.