(Published in International Journal of Technical Cooperation, 4 (1), Summer, 1998)
CHILD LABOUR IN BANGLADESH
Nasim Banu, Shahjahan Bhuiyan, Islamic University, Kushtia and Smita Sabhlok, University of Southern California
In an increasingly integrated world, people feel more intimately connected with communities and processes in distant lands. Today the world seems to have high expectations and aspirations for its children, certainly higher than seeing them break bricks or straining their eyes over dimly lit workbenches (Stalker, 1996:3). Indeed, international anxiety about needless child labour is mounting. Demonstration marches protesting against child labour began on each of the continents in January 1998 to culminate in Geneva when the International Labour Organisation meets to take up the issue. Meantime, the extent of child labour in a country is being taken as an indicator of how far that country has fallen behind developmentally. After all, child labour dooms many to lives of disease, misery and destitution, thereby reinforcing the cycle of poverty and exploitation. Child labour has become more visible and controversial in recent years as structural reforms and macro-economic stabilisation policies have stressed exports. The resulting intense global competition in carpets, textiles, apparel, shoe and leather items has promoted the employment of thousands of children who often work under quite inhumane conditions. But children also work in other areas, so that the export-oriented industries may be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Why do poor parents send their children to work? Will employers be able to resist the threat of consumer boycotts and trade sanctions or will they have to reconsider their child labour employment practices? 1
High economic stakes are at risk and the lives of hundreds of thousand children are involved.
What is child labour? The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) makes a distinction between child work and child labour. To see a child work is not necessarily bad. Work may be encouraged for a young adult as an apprentice and to develop a sense of responsibility. The difference lies between what is being done for a child's development and what is sheer exploitation. Work carried out by children ranges from the beneficial to the harmful. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to draw a sharp line of distinction between benevolent child work and destructive child labour. Bertolaso, in the hearings before the United States Congress Subcommittee on Labor (1994,55) proposed a criteria that could help distinguish child labour from child work: full time work at too early an age; too many hours spent on working; work which exerts undue physical, social or psychological stress; work and life on the streets in bad conditions; inadequate pay; too much responsibility; work which hampers access to education and is detrimental to full social and psychological development; and work that undermines childrens’ dignity and self esteem. Further, no one has any doubt that children should be excluded from highly dangerous employment While these are generally acceptable criteria, there remains a substantial grey area in which it is more difficult to legislate and for which appropriate policy will depend very much on local circumstances and perceptions (Stalker, 1996,5). Apprenticeship in many traditional skills may have to begin early and apprenticeship has to be distinguished from child labour..
The extent of child labour In its 1997 Report on the State of the World's Children, the UNICEF estimated that of the one billion children in the age group 5-14 years in the less developed countries, 190 million, or about 20%, were working (UNICEF, 1997,25). Three quarters of these working children, or about 143 million, worked six days a week or more and one half worked nine hours a day or more. The latest calculations of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimate that 250 million...
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