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Last Updated: Monday, 7 November 2005, 17:43 GMT
The brick chippers of Dhaka

By Fergus Walsh
BBC medical correspondent, Dhaka

Dhaka brickfields
Many families come from the countryside looking for work
When Bangladeshi families have nothing left and nowhere else to turn, they often end up in the brick fields of Dhaka.

They cover a vast area and it is thought 6,000 children work here.

Sabina is 12 and her brother, Rupchan, is eight.

They have worked here with their parents for a year. Neither goes to school and like their parents they cannot read or write.

It is the same with most of the children. Here education is a low priority compared to food and shelter.

Nimble fingers

Sabina works 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

She has a small hammer which she uses to smash bricks into chips.

These are then sold and used in construction to help make concrete.

Sabina, 12, and her brother, Rupchan, eight
Sabina, here with her brother, Rupchan, works seven days a week

For this unending toil in the searing heat she earns about 1,200 taka ($18) a month. Put together with the rest of the family's earnings they have just enough to survive.

The whole time we talked Sabina did not stop working. Her nimble fingers move out of the hammer's way, just in time, every few seconds... most of the time.

Some of her fingertips were black from bruises.

A little further into the brick fields I met six-year-old Rashida. She has been here for six months with her mother, Banu.

When Rashida is not chipping bricks she looks after her younger brother and sister - they spend every day in the brick fields.

They took me to their home, a one room shack made out of corrugated iron sheets. There was no sanitation and the nearest tap was a walk away.

Most of the interior was made up of a single, raised platform where the family slept.

Like many families they moved from the countryside to Dhaka in the hope of finding work. Their home in a rural village had been swept away in a flood.

Then, five months ago, Banu's husband died of cancer. Now she struggles more than ever to feed their three children.

Banu told me she would like to send Rashida to school but she needs her to look after the two youngest and the extra money she brings in is vital.

Range of skills

There is free education in Bangladesh but when it comes to a choice between food and school, it is obvious which wins.

Unicef work project, Dhaka
The children come here a few hours a day to learn skills which may help them find a better-paid job
Ruby Noble, Unicef

The UN children's fund, Unicef, estimates there are five million working children in Bangladesh aged five to 14.

Most of the employment is unregulated and they work for a pittance. Stories of cruelty and abuse are common.

Ruby Noble from Unicef showed me around a vocational training institute in Dhaka.

Child workers from around 12 upwards study a range of work skills here, from making clothes to plumbing and wiring.

Ms Noble says: "The strategy is called Earn and Learn. The children come here a few hours a day to learn skills which may help them find a better-paid job.

"The rest of the time they are free to carry on working - mostly as domestic helps in people's homes. Obviously we'd rather they were at school, but this is a realistic option which may help them build a better life in the future."

But such schemes can help only a minority.

With little social welfare, families do what they can to get by.

Very often that means the burden of work falls on the youngest members of the family.

Child labour is just one of a host of social problems facing this chaotic and overcrowded country.

And for most child workers, things are unlikely to get much better anytime soon.

See the children at work in the brick fields

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