Bangladesh slums ‘rife’ with child laborers working 64-hour weeks

A young boy working in a shipyard outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Credit: Zoriah / Flickr)

Children in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, are forfeiting education to work an average of 64 hours a week mostly in the garment industry, according to a new report released Wednesday.

The report published by the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) said that 15 percent of 6- to 14-year-old children in Dhaka’s slums are out of school and working full time. In some cases, children are working up to 110 hours a week and on average earning less than $2 a day.

Based on a survey of 2,700 slum households in Dhaka, the report is representative for a population of more than half a million people. Nearly half of the children are employed by age 14.

“Child labor is rife in these slums,” the authors wrote.

Despite recent reported claims from the government that the garment and shrimping industries are “fully free” from child labor, researchers found that the garment industry – second in the world only to China’s – employs two out of three slum-dwelling girl laborers.

The disparity in accounts may be due to the government’s lack of data and regulation of informal factories, where most of the children are employed, that are subcontracted by the formal businesses that export.

Social movements have recently encouraged fashion brands to hold their suppliers accountable for safe and ethical manufacturing, especially after the Rana Plaza collapse killed 1,136 people in 2013 and more recently, the death of a 9-year-old boy at a textile mill captured the world’s attention.

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But the authors of the report assert that the government of Bangladesh remains the most responsible and effective agent for change through education policy and industry regulation.

Bangladesh has made enviable progress over the last several years, even meeting a number of targets for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) well before 2015. The national poverty rate fell from 49 percent in 2000 to 31 percent in 2010, extreme poverty rates were halved, and growth has averaged over 6 percent since 2000, fueled by urbanization.

Yet the problem of child labor persists, jeopardizing the country’s ability to achieve the new set of Sustainable Development Goals, in particular poverty, universal secondary education and quality learning.

About 5 million children ages 5 to 14 are employed, according to UNICEF, with 3.2 million of those classified as “child laborers,” according to the International Labor Organization, engaged in work that exceeds a minimum number of hours to be deemed harmful, depending on the child’s age and the type of work. The current legal threshold for “hazardous work” is 42 hours a week.

“Child labor represents a symptom of poverty and cause of education deprivation,” Kevin Watkins, co-author of the report and chief executive of Save the Children, said in a press release. “It transmits poverty across generations, traps children in a cycle of poverty and undermines national economic growth.”

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For the families of child laborers, the child’s wages only serves to bring their income level up to those of other slum households without child laborers, indicating a “distress choice” by parents, according to the report.

In the same way that poverty both drives and is perpetuated by child labor, education is not just threatened by child labor – a poor educational system of failing students feeds it.

The results are devastating. According to the survey, 36.1 percent of boys and 34.6 percent of girls reported experiencing extreme fatigue. More than half who started working between the ages of 6 and 10 could not correctly identify more than three Bengali letters. Nearly two-thirds could not read a single word correctly.

Therefore, not only is tighter regulation employers and industries necessary for ending child labor, according to the report, better education is key. For example, the authors recommend raising the age of free and compulsory education from 10 to 14, increasing financing to improve quality of education in slum areas and expanding cash transfer programs in schools – an initiative in which Bangladesh already leads the world.

With 168 million child laborers worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization, child labor is not a problem unique to Bangladesh.

“What our survey found in Dhaka is a microcosm of a global problem that should be at the center of the international agenda,” Watkins said in a release.

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About Author

Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.