BANGKOK (ILO NEWS) - The most detailed picture ever compiled of the conditions endured by Bangladesh’s most disadvantaged children - those working in what are classified as the worst forms of child labour – has revealed that many are working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, sometimes for only food and a bed.
The research was carried out by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics with technical assistance from the ILO’s International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). It looked at the “poorest of the poor”; children aged 5-17 who are working in five selected worst forms of child labour – welding, auto workshops, road transport, battery recharging and recycling, and street children.
The nationwide surveys found that children in these sectors (almost all boys) worked on average nine hours a day, and the majority of those questioned reported working six or seven days a week.
Despite these gruelling hours the vast majority receive little or even no wages. Youngsters recharging and filling batteries averaged Tk.313 (US$ 5.30) a month while street children – who earn by collecting old paper, street selling, shining shoes, portering or begging - averaged just Tk.288 (US$4.85) a month. Those in the transport sector did best, averaging Tk.1,417 (US$24) a month. Yet even these low earnings figures paint a misleading picture of the children’s welfare. For example, while the average monthly wages of those in auto workshops is TK. 470 (US$ 8), 40 per cent of these children said they received no wages, just food and lodging.
The youngest economically active children surveyed were the street children. On average they started their first job aged just seven; a quarter of those interviewed were aged under 11 and 73 per cent under 14. In other sectors few children under 10 were employed.
Most children (88 to 96 per cent) were unaware that Bangladesh law sets a minimum working age. However the majority of employers surveyed were aware.
Dropping out of school was common. Most of the children surveyed had little education - damaging their prospects for a better future. In these five industries at least 52 per cent were illiterate; of street children, 76 per cent could not read or write.
Few managed to combine work with studying. The best performance (8 per cent) was among street children and the worst (1.8 per cent) in the road transport category. Despite this, many children interviewed wanted to go to school; 83 per cent of street children said they would go if it were possible (in other sectors it was 37 to 40 per cent).
Many child workers (from 31 per cent in the auto sector to 57 per cent of street children) reported health problems as a result of their work and lifestyles.
The surveys also looked at why children ended up in these worse forms of child labour and the overwhelming reason was family poverty. Parental illiteracy levels were significantly higher than the national average of 40 per cent, and in the majority of households the main breadwinner worked as a day labourer.
“These nationwide surveys were organised because there was no conception of the size of the problem at national level, in terms of the nature of the sectors, the number of child workers involved and the realities of their lives. That meant effective programmes to help them could not be developed,” said Sanjukta Mukherjee, Baseline Survey Specialist at IPEC.
“Now we have an in-depth picture of their working conditions, daily tasks, health problems, education levels, socio-economic family backgrounds and aspirations. And, although the figure is conservative, we also now have an estimate for the number of children caught up in these worst forms of child labour - around 149,000. This empirical data means we are much better equipped to help these children”.
"The plight of these children should concern us all because children are the future of the nation," said Mr. Zobdul Hoque, Director, Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. "If these children don't get a chance to develop their talents we subject them to a cycle of poverty and low skill work. Bangladesh needs a skilled workforce, one that can compete in the global economy. Our society and economy will not reap the full benefits of globalization if we don't give all our children an education".
The surveys were completed despite formidable operational obstacles. Researchers faced hostility and a lack of co-operation both from employers and child workers. Some employers were reluctant to give access to either their child employees or their premises. Children – particularly street children – were often too tired or frightened to talk, and many younger interviewees couldn’t remember their own ages, educational level, income, or details of their families.