Page last updated at 11:49 GMT, Friday, 29 May 2009 12:49 UK

The harsh necessity of child labour

By James Melik
Business reporter, BBC World Service, Bangladesh

Boys working on Dhaka building site
Many boys hone their skills and learn a trade whilst still teenagers

As one of the world's leading suppliers of ready made garments , Bangladesh frequently encounters hostile criticism over the use of child labour in its textile industry.

Western retailers have rushed to assure conscience-stricken consumers that steps are taken to eradicate the practice, and in 2006 the Bangladeshi government passed a new labour law.

It enshrines the rights of young workers to receive a fixed salary, compensation in case of accident, proper holidays and to have access to education.

But that law is only designed to help children in the textile sector, so it does nothing to ease the problem of child labour in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Missed opportunities

The Bangladesh constitution provides basic education free of charge to all children aged between six and 10 - although some figures suggest that only 50% are currently attending school.

If I don't take home 60 taka ($1) a day, someone in my family will go hungry

Mijan, a 13-year-old labourer

Of those, only one in five continues with secondary education while just one in 25 will eventually proceed to higher education.

The reason for such low attendance is the poor financial circumstances of the most families.

Some reports indicate that in Bangladesh, one in 10 children has a job which takes up most of their waking hours.

Many suffer poor health as a result of hazardous conditions.

Child labour is not illegal in Bangladesh, although the law discourages children under the age of 14 from working in factories.

It is not uncommon to walk past a building site and see youths as young as 11 carrying baskets of bricks or cement on their heads.

Mijan has yet to reach his 14th birthday, but he is proud to be doing heavy labour for 12 hours a day, six days a week.

young girl working in kitchen
Many households employ domestic help to do the cleaning and cooking

"If I don't take home 60 taka ($1) a day, someone in my family will go hungry," he says.

Widespread abuse

For girls, the work tends to be based in the home - an estimated two million domestic workers are employed in the cities of Dhaka and Chittagong alone.

These girls often begin working when they are eight years old and can be subjected to violence and sexual abuse without any formal jurisdiction to protect their wellbeing.

Over 300 deaths of young domestic workers were reported in the press between 2001 and 2008.

Officially, child labour is forbidden in factories which make garments for export - but many children are still drawn into the home-working garment business.

Thirteen-year-old Mitu Akhtar says she started working with a sewing machine when she was seven years old, and had to give all the money that she earned to her parents.

These children are so poor that many of them have not had any food when they arrive in the morning
Headmistress Afroza Khan

She quit school when she was nine. "I've never had any time to play with my friends," she explains.

Mitu is now being trained in a centre for former child labourers run by the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS).

She is learning to read and write and is picking up the basics of how to use a sewing machine safely and efficiently. She says her ambition is to be a tailor.

Nazrul Khan, the president of BILS, say the focus is on finding children from industrial regions of the country whose parents have lost their jobs.

Pupils in a school in Dhaka
Poor parents need their children to earn money rather than go to school

"We come to an agreement with the family that, if we educate and train one of their children, and support them to find employment, there will be no child labour in that family," he says.

Difficult choices

In a primary school near a huge slum in Dhaka, pupils aged between six and 10 include the children of rickshaw drivers and women who break bricks for a living.

"These children are so poor that many of them have not had any food when they arrive in the morning and their clothes are in terrible condition, like rags," says headmistress Afroza Khanan.

Most of the pupils have to go to work as soon as they have finished their lessons, in order to help their parents by selling cups of tea or other odd jobs.

She is also deeply concerned about the children who do not go to school because they are working.

Sometimes she virtually drags them into the classroom where they face books and blackboards for the first time - and experience the discipline of lessons.

"The sad reality is that these families depend on the children financially," she laments.

"What I would like to see is a programme to motivate parents to send their children to school. The government could offer a small sum of money to each student who attends," she says.

"Mothers tell me that would make all the difference when it comes to deciding whether to send their kids to school," she adds.

Bleak future

Some politicians support Afroza Khanan's proposal but so far the government maintains it cannot afford it.

Two boys in a Dhaka street
Reports say 350,000 youngsters live and work on the streets of Dhaka

Even if such a scheme was introduced, it would be difficult to determine how many families should receive the money and how it would be paid.

The last time the government examined the issue, it concluded about four million children have full or part-time jobs.

The Bangladeshi Labour Institute believes the number is closer to eight million and is rising as the population grows.

"When society has such a large population who are not educated, who are aggrieved, not skilled, unhealthy and unhappy, it is a threat to social stability and economic growth," BILS president Nazrul Khan believes.

The fear is that the next generation of Bangladeshis will be forced into work at an early age unless something breaks the cycle of poverty.

In a country where at least 40% of the population lives in poverty, child labour is often regarded as a necessity.

Despite the economic progress of the past 20 years, there is little to suggest that society's attitude is changing.

However, if more children can receive an education it might provide future generations with an alternative.

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