Bangladesh a leading country in producing goods made by child workers

Lost Childhood

Akram Hosen Mamun

During the last couple of years, the news media have extensively covered the inhuman working conditions of the balloon factories operating at the ghettoized industrial areas on the outskirts of Dhaka. The factories have hit the headlines so many times that it has become almost a cliché. But the factories are still operating under the same conditions at Kamrangirchar, along the river bank. There are many balloon factories in Keraniganj and Hajaribag. Thousands of children aged 7 to 12 work in these factories.

The thick layers of powder around these factories can be seen even from the street. Even if one misses the white fog, there is no escaping the stench of acid, rubber and synthetic pigments. The cheap powder that is being used to unwind each balloon from the steel frame creates a thick white fog of powder in the factories. After working for 12-14 hours in the factory, the boys emerge from their work looking like powder covered monsters with bloodshot eyes. Milon, a 10-year-old boy, who has been working in a factory for the last three years, already suffers from coughing and sneezing most of the time. His eyes constantly sting from the noxious fumes. Asked if he knows what the powder and chemicals are doing to him, he says, “I don’t know much about that.”



Child labour is so visible in the city that it has ceased to be shocking. Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Milon went to primary school and studied till Class 2. “But then my father sent me to the factory with other kids in the neighborhood,” he says. Obviously, he did not have any say in the matter.

The owners claim the powder they use is talcum powder and not harmful. But talcum powder, when inhaled, poses serious risk of causing aspiration and pneumonia. “Moreover, excessive exposure to coloring pigments can cause cancer. Any kind of exposure– be it direct or through inhaling can allow it to penetrate inside the body and cause diseases, even stimulate cancer,” says Prof Nilufar Nahar, Department of Chemistry, Dhaka University.

“I can see that my son’s health is deteriorating, but his income is a support for me. Besides, all the children in the area works in the factories,” says Milon’s father Jamal, when told about the health risks of working in a toxic environment.

In another part of Dhaka, Sentu, a mechanic and owner of an automobile workshop near Dholaikhal, is overhauling a large engine well past midnight. A couple of 10 to 12-year-old boys are helping him with the tools and cogs. The boys have arrived at the garage at nine o’clock in the morning when the dismantling of the car engine commences. By the evening, all of them are covered in dust, soot, grease and kerosene from head to toe. Shakil, the younger boy, appears to have symptoms of night blindness. He wipes his eyes with his sleeves at regular intervals while his hands fumble with the tools. When his father Belal, a taxi driver, brought him to the garage, he had begged Sentu to take the boy as an apprentice. “Beat him hard if he turns out be a lousy worker,” Belal had told Sentu. The question of paying the boy for his labor was not even considered.

Sentu informs that his garage remains open seven days a week but, “of course, when they get sick, they can take a couple of days off work.” Ironically, as he speaks, there is a sticker with slogans against child labour lying on his table. Hanging on the wall, is a special Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) notification stating no children (below the age of 18) should be employed in factories or industries with hazardous work environments.



About 3.7 million children are presently engaged in hazardous labour. Photo: Amirul Rajiv

“I went to a primary school for three years, but my father took me out of the school and sent me to a madrassa, says Shakil. “After about a year of going to that madrassa, I could not learn anything, because I’m a lousy student,” he adds smiling. Asked if he likes working in the garage, he says, “We boys have fun in the garage when the big ones are not around.” The other, comparatively older boy, Siraj also came to the garage when he was nine. “When I arrived here, the mechanic named me Kallu, after my skin colour,” says Siraj laughing. He adds, “Nobody knows my real name anymore.”

All of the little boys agree that they receive physical punishment almost everyday in the garage. Their hands and arms have many cuts and bruises from working with heavy machines. None of them were asked if they wanted to go to work instead of going to a school.

When contacted, the Chief Executive Officer of DCC South informs that he does not know about the notice regarding child labour but he guesses that it was issued before the corporation got divided recently. He then refuses to comment further on the matter.

The conditions for child labour in manufacturing of jute rope, steel, and kitchen utensils are even more horrendous. Since the mid 80s, thousands of children have been unscrupulously employed in the bidi (cheap cigarettes) factories in the northern districts of the country. In an extensive study in 1997, anthropologist Therese Blanchet, observed that many of these workers suffered from lung related diseases, and even throat cancer, after their adolescent years.

Children start working in the factories as the day breaks. When hundreds of labourers begin to insert tobacco in the paper rolls, the air inside the hall becomes so thick with tobacco dust that it gets harder to breath. The bidi factories have very little ventilation, and during summer, hundreds of workers huddle together and make bidi. Children aged 8 to 14 work for 12 hours in the gloom of the bidi factories.

According to the National Child Labour Elimination Policy adopted by the Ministry of Labour and Employment in 2010, hazardous work for children includes working more than five hours a day, work that creates undue pressure on physical and psychological wellbeing and development, work without pay and work where the child becomes the victim of torture or exploitation or has no opportunity for leisure.

The policy also provided a framework aiming to eradicate all forms of child labour from the country by 2015. To achieve this, the policy makers hope to enact laws and improve law enforcement methods. The existing Labour Act 2006 prohibits employment of children less than 14 years of age and bans hazardous forms of child labour for persons under the age of 18. However, despite these laws and policies, child labour still remains so visible in the city that it has ceased to be shocking. In a 2009 study by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, it was expressed that many Bangladeshi children continue to work in five of the worst forms of child labour, namely welding, automobile workshops, road transport, battery recharging and tobacco factories. Children can always be seen working at tea stalls, restaurants, supermarkets, factories and selling goods in between traffic on busy streets. Of the 7.4 million working children aged five to 17, about 3.7 million are presently engaged in hazardous labour.

Kashem Masud, Project Director of Eradication of Child Labour, says, “Initially, we decided to eliminate all forms of child labour from the country but considering the socio-economic realities of Bangladesh, we have narrowed down our focus into saving all children from hazardous works by 2015.” However, when asked about the steps that have been taken to reach that goal, he says, “Poverty is the main cause of child labour in Bangladesh. When the parents force their children to earn for the family, it becomes harder to enforce the law.”

Employing children effectively goes against the fundamental principles of our constitution and Bangladesh is one of many countries that signed the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention on labour rights. “With the international community, we are trying to eradicate child labour from the country. The state is supposed ensure all the basic rights to every child of the country,” says Masud. But to this day, saving children from potentially hazardous works, not to mention the hope of ensuring basic rights for all children, remains a far cry.

In most of the research on child labour, including the ones conducted by ILO, poverty is generally pointed out as both the main cause and consequence of child labour. However, this view reflects a rather simplified explanation of a more complicated– and, for that matter, a multifaceted– problem. To begin with, the parents who send their children to work in the factories are poor. But poverty is not the only reason why they take their children out of school and send them to work. For example, like most of the boys working in the automobile workshops, Shakil works without a salary. As a result, his father Belal does not expect to get any financial support at the end of the month. When asked, the taxi driver says, “I want him to be an automobile mechanic. Only the boys who go to the garages from childhood can become mechanics.” Therefore, it is for Belal’s hopes and dreams of a better life and social status that he sends his son into a hazardous workplace. It is also curious to note that he does not consider elementary education a necessity for children.

However, when asked, automobile mechanic Sentu says, “The chances that this boy will become an efficient mechanic in future are slight, because the boy can hardly read Bangla or English.” He also said that the boys who can read manufacturer’s instructions would find it easier to become mechanics. Nevertheless, like all the other garage owners, he keeps young illiterate boys in his workshop as apprentices.

Abdullah Salam, a mason who lives in Madartek, had also taken his son Shamim from school before he finished his primary education, and sent him to work in a welding workshop in Kamalapur. After several years, the boy, now 15, has become quite skilled in welding and now earns enough to support his father. Shamim has one older and two younger sisters; his parents do not expect them to earn a living. Instead, they are trying to marry his sisters off. Abdullah thinks that sending girls to work in factories or as domestic help is a disgrace to the family. In this instance, the discriminatory view towards girls has created the need to keep them at home. As a result, Abdullah’s son has had to bear a tremendous responsibility, and from a very young age.

Child labour and the scope for education are interrelated in many ways. Nearly 50 per cent of children drop out before they complete primary schooling. There is no doubt that these school dropouts add to the number of child labourers. The insufficient number of government primary schools and lack of awareness are also important factors.

While the government and NGO projects on eradicating child labour proceed at a snail’s pace, the future of thousands of children becomes darker. Meanwhile, these unfortunate children provide an unending supply of cheap and unskilled labour in factories, making Bangladesh a leading country in producing goods made by child workers.

Washing the Dirty Laundry

Anika Hossain



There are no provisions for domestic workers under the Labour Law in this country. Photo: Amirul Rajiv

In 2011, a Hollywood movie was released, called “The Help” which is based in the United States, during the civil rights movement in 1960. The movie is about a young white woman aspiring to be a writer, who decides to write a story from the point of view of African-American maids, who share their experiences working for white families. Although technically, these women were no longer slaves, they worked on very hard terms. They received bare minimum wages, worked long hours, had few legal rights and very few if any, received respect from their employers whose children they were so lovingly raising. The protagonist of the movie was outraged when a law was established stating that the maids would have to use separate bathrooms as they carried diseases that were “unknown” to the white population. She was disgusted by the hypocrisy and blatant discrimination that existed in the society, causing one group of people to dehumanise another.

This Oscar winning movie has made its way into the Bangladeshi DVD stores and ironically enough, has been well received by the audience here. They claim to be “deeply moved” and “heartbroken” by the injustice of it all, never once thinking that if the protagonist of the movie, made her way into some of their own homes, she would probably have a coronary attack.

We Bangladeshis may live in the 21st century, but when it comes to dealing with our house help, we may as well live in the dark ages. Domestic workers in Bangladesh do everything from washing, cooking, babysitting to cleaning our messes as many as three to five times a day, not to mention being at our beck and call for a glass of water, tea, a foot massage—there is really no limit. For all this, they are rewarded with little respect, and are treated like untouchables. They use separate dishes to eat, are never allowed on the furniture and are generally expected to keep out of sight.

14-year-old Shanti, lives in a large five bedroom apartment with her affluent employers, a family of five says, “My daily work includes cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner for the family, cleaning the house twice a day, making tea and anything else they might need me to do. They send their clothes out to the laundry so I don’t have to wash them.”

Najma, a middle aged woman, works for an upper middle class family. “My job is to cook, wash up in the kitchen and look after the children,” she says. “I wake up as early as 6 in the morning and I work sometimes till 1 or 2 at night, after everyone is home and have eaten and gone to bed.”

15-year-old Nilufer who lives in an independent house with her employers says, “I usually sleep in the kitchen, but in the summer when it gets too hot, I am allowed to sleep in the veranda. I eat what is given to me and my mistress chooses my clothes. I get new clothes twice a year, during Eid.”

Nilufer has not been home to see her family in over a year. Most of these workers have no fixed work hours and are at our service twenty four hours a day. They receive very little leave time and weekends are out of the question. Most have no room of their own and are made to sleep in the kitchen or other areas of the house and of course domestic workers in every household, use separate bathrooms. In our country, we don’t even need to give them a reason. That’s just the way it is.

“There are no provisions for domestic workers under the Labour Law in this country,” says Borhanuddin Khan, Professor of Law at Dhaka University, “This deprives them in many ways of their basic rights.” Because of this lack of acknowledgement, many employers do not feel a sense of responsibility toward their house help as they are not held accountable for their treatment of them.

They use separate dishes to eat, are never allowed on the furniture and are generally expected to
keep out of sight. Photo: Amirul Rajiv

“I am very strict with my servants,” says Pia Haider (not her real name), “I don’t let them watch too much TV because they might start getting ideas into their heads. I also don’t let them keep mobile phones because I don’t want them discussing everything that happens under my roof with their families.”

Amna Ali (not her real name), who employs 10-year-old Salma to do most of her housework and take care of her 5-year-old daughter says, “She isn’t too young to start earning her own living. It’s better than begging on the street. Besides she gets three meals a day here and it’s safe.”

Over the years, NGO’s have recommended various processes through which domestic workers could be covered by the labour law. “However this did not happen because of some technical problems regarding how to set it up,” says Professor Borhanunddin Khan. For example, under the labour law, which is designed for industry and factory workers, the employees work eight to twelve hours a day continuously with not more than an hour’s rest. Domestic workers do not have fixed schedules and are called on sporadically during the day to do their work with more than one break in between. Keeping track of domestic workers hired in private homes is also a challenge.

“Given these circumstances, in my opinion it is more important to create a separate law for domestic workers than to include them in the labour law,” says Khan. According to Khan, domestic workers are only a part of the informal sector, the whole of which has been excluded from the labour law. “Think about the day labourers working at construction sites or brick mines, or the women in agriculture” says Khan. “They make significant contributions to our economy. We have to first figure out how to give this entire sector recognition, before we can address specific issues such as those of domestic workers.”

Advocate Salma Ali, the executive director of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyer’s Association (BNWLA) believes that it is imperative that domestic workers be acknowledged as a part of the labour force as soon as possible. “Domestic workers are perhaps the most vulnerable people in this country. They are probably the most violently abused group within our society and have little or no legal representation,” says Ali. “There is a class of people in our society, especially those from small towns and villages, who brutally abuse these workers simply because they can get away with it Most of the domestic labour force is made up of young girls, some of whom are being physically and sexually abused. If there are no laws that recognise their existence, how will they be protected?”



Thinking of domestic help as inferior beings, who can cook our food but never sit at the same table to eat with us, is the attitude that needs fixing. Photo: Amirul Rajiv

In an attempt to bring these domestic workers into the labour force and under the protection of the law, several civil society organisations and NGO’s worked together and submitted a memorandum as well as a code of conduct to the Ministry of Labour and Employment on January 9, 2008.

“About twenty five different orgranisations participated in drafting this,” says Farida Yeasmin, the deputy director of BLAST (Bangladesh Legal Aid Services and Trust). “Our first objective was to include domestic workers in the labour law, but the law and policy makers were against this. After many discussions and debates we realised that in order to include domestic workers in the labour law there must be a separate section made for them entirely because there are many differences between a member of the formal labour force and a domestic worker, so we came to a decision to draft a policy and then work towards including them in the labour law in the future.”

The draft outlines the responsibilities of the employers towards the domestic workers they hire and define their role as well as that of the worker and the government. The memorandum states that a contract must be drawn up when a domestic worker is being hired. This contract will outline their duties, salary, leave time, hours of rest and relaxation, living quarters, education and medical facilities they can expect to receive etc. It states that the workers must be registered with the nearest police station upon employment and records have to be kept about themselves, their families, their permanent address and employer’s name and address.

The memorandum also covers maternity leave, work hours, the government’s responsibility to fix wages, to monitor domestic workers, issue legal ramifications for any kind of abuse towards these workers. The memorandum also suggests the establishment of special monitoring cells where domestic workers can place complaints if any and a hotline they can call if they need assistance. It also suggests that children under the age of 14 should not be employed as domestic help. Unfortunately, this policy is yet to be approved by the ministry.

“In my opinion having a law won’t always work in a country like ours,” says Professor Borhanuddin Khan. “Social mobilisation is needed to bring about change in the existing system. We need to work on our values, morals and our conscience. As a citizen of this country, my civic, economic, political and social rights need to be protected no matter what I do for a living. There doesn’t need to be a separate law for the protection of basic human rights, the Constitution covers that.”

According to Khan, there are some situations that call for an evolution rather than a revolution, and this has already begun, albeit on a small scale.

“Nowadays it is so difficult to find someone to work in your home that some people are willing to pay large amounts to get help,” says Khan. Most people prefer to join the garments industry or local factories than work at someone’s home, because they have more independence that way.”

“My mother used to shout at our servants a lot when I was younger,” says Sonia Khan, “That attitude changed dramatically as time passed. She is so afraid they will leave, she bought them their own TV, and they have mobile phones and are allowed to go out once in a while.”

This attitude has been adopted by many upper middle class families because most of us are so dependent on our help, we cannot imagine a life without them.

While these are positive signs toward change, our attitudes must also change for the right reasons. Thinking of domestic help as inferior beings, who can cook our food but never sit at the same table to eat with us, is the attitude that needs fixing. We must treat them with empathy and respect, not just to persuade them to work for us, but because they deserve it. It is not easy to alter a frame of mind that has been governing our lifestyles for centuries. The protagonist of “The Help” was faced with a similar challenge and she chose to raise awareness through her book. Educating ourselves and those around us is a small but effective way to begin a much needed social evolution.

Photo: Zahedul I Khan



তথ্য কণিকা Jahan Hassan জাহান হাসান
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