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.
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.
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.
The historic commitment made by world leaders in 2000 spoke of sparing “no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from misery, abject and dehumanising poverty”. It resulted in a stimulating framework of eight goals, to be achieved by a wide range of practical measures aimed at enabling populations across the globe to improve their lives in the present and the future. Three months before reaching the Millennium Development Goals’ deadline, the time has come to take a good look at the progress we have made. Where do we stand in achieving these goals, what are the lessons we have learned and are we able to continue what’s been started?
According to the Report of the Secretary General in 2013 on the Millennium Development Goals, we have reached the target of poverty reduction five years ahead of schedule. In developing regions, the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day decreased from 47 per cent in 1990 to 22 per cent in 2010. However, gender inequalities persist, in employment for example with a gap of 24.8 per cent in 2012, but also in terms of access to health services and coverage. Most observers agree to recognise that, although modest, the MDGs have as a whole not been reached, especially when it comes to neonatal health.
Almost 1000 women die every day from complications related to their pregnancy or childbirth and a large majority of these deaths take place in ‘Southern countries’ and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. In Malawi, Chad and Central African Republic, more than 100 pregnancies result in the death of the mother. The risk is a hundred times higher than in France, for instance. Yet, the causes of these deaths are well known: the lack of infrastructure, the failure of medicine supply circuits and the shortage of qualified nursing staff.
According to many organisations, researchers and NGOs, both in the North and the South, the commitments made by States are still too timid to stop this vicious circle and sustainably put an end to maternal and infant mortality in developing countries. Should we blame a lack of ambition or simply the absence of a long-term vision? Some organisations, such as Oxfam, have been advocating for years in favour of an health cover system that would allow women to be taken care of during their pregnancy and deliver in a health centre. This is basic care they are often denied de facto, due to the lack of financial means (or simply access to those means).
What we need are practical and bold measures to tackle these causes, not only the elimination of direct payments by patients and investment in emergency obstetric care but also in health infrastructure in rural areas and in reproductive health education and awareness, products and medication.
In general, the partial failure of the MDGs highlights the ineffectiveness of vague and unbinding cooperation frameworks (an adage which applies both to international development, ecology and environmental protection). What we need is an action plan including objectives that are clearer and more concrete. This would include promoting better working conditions in the public sector (including better pay and access to training), recommending that 25% of public health aid is used for health workers in direct contact with patients, a reaffirmation of the importance of free healthcare for women and children and the commitment to financially and technically support countries which have abolished direct payments of care.
Without this, we take the risk of being equally disappointed when 2030 comes.