Vol. 5 Num 916 Sun. December 24, 2006  
Star City

Child labourers bound in despair

Ten-year old Tara Mia arrived in Dhaka from Nagarpur in Tangail 15 days ago to work as a trainee in one of the bookbinding shops in Banglabazar. He starts work at 7 in the morning and continues until 10:00pm. Apart from three meal breaks he has no time to spare. Tara Mia has never been to school.

While talking to Star City, Tara was preparing the pages of a Bangla grammar book for the cutting machine. Asked what he knows about the book, he said: "I don't know what the black dots mean. I have never been to school. My family cannot afford to send me to school. Now I am working to earn some money and preparing to help my family."

Around 12,000 child labourers like Tara Mia work in the manual bookbinding industry in Banglabazar and Arambagh areas in Dhaka are leading a miserable life. Children involved in this back-breaking job help the government to bring out millions of copies of textbooks but they themselves don't have access to education.

According to officials of the National Curriculum and Textbook Board, this year they will produce 52 million copies of primary level, 17 million copies of secondary level and 18 million madrasa books. Most boys working in the bookbinding industry either left school before finishing primary education or they had never been to school.

Abidul, 10, arrived in Dhaka a month ago also from Tangail. "I would have been in school at this hour. Instead I am now working. I wish I could go back home." Abidul said he had to leave school before he could learn to read.

There are around 700 enlisted bookbinding shops in Banglabazar and some others in Arambagh, Nilkhet and Mohammadpur areas. The owners employ mostly child workers aged between 10 and 18 for manual bookbinding, which includes folding printed pages, sewing them together, cutting the uneven pages and adding a cover with glue.

MA Hannan, owner of a bookbinding shop, said the bookbinding industry prefers young boys because they work sincerely and they have good eyesight. "Young boys can do it faster and more accurately than older ones," he explained.

Most workers in Banglabazar area come from Nagarpur. "This area has a long tradition of bookbinding. This is one of the reasons why most workers hail from Tangail."

Cutting involves outdated machines that often cause severe accidents. Often young boys get their fingers chopped off by the machine. Mohammad Shafik from Tebaria, Tangail is one of the workers who was injured by the cutting machine. "It was around 6 in the evening. One of the cutting machines failed because of a sudden power failure. I have lost eight fingers with just one snap of the sharp blade. It took only a blink of an eye.", Shafik explained.

"I have lost the only asset that I had. My hands. Now I have no resources and trying to survive," he added. With the help of bookstore owners of Banglabazar, Shafik is trying to set up a binding factory himself. This is the only work he knows. A child worker himself merely three years ago he now employs around 10 children in his factory that owns one cutting machine. In recent months however, the number of accidents decreased. Workers and factory owners are more careful.

Hannan also says that November to March and April to August is busy season because school level books and college level books come out during this time of the year. During peak season factories hire more workers, which increases the total number of child workers. Trainee workers work all year round. They only get food and accommodation. They start getting paid after a year. The amount starts from Tk 500 with food and lodgings. Families of these workers depend on this meagre wage. They spend the rest of the year at home in their villages without work and payment.

These children are deprived of basic rights. Due to the lack of a strong workers union child workers cannot ensure their rights. During peak season they have to work 12 to 14 hours a day. Food provided for them is poor and cooked in a very unhygienic condition. They have no separate sleeping quarters. They eat and sleep right where they work. Working conditions are extremely shabby. They have to work without proper lighting, which increases the risk for those working in the cutting section.

Most boys suffer from malnutrition and skin disease. They do not receive any medical care during times in need. "If I am sick I have to go to the doctor on my own. I have to pay the doctor's fee", said Alamin, a boy of 13.

Workers are usually laid off at the age of 19 to 20. Factory owners look for fresh faces. Bookbinding is the only skill they have, which all of a sudden becomes useless. While millions of children all around the country go to school and pursue education, the lack of a useful skill cements these young children in poverty.

A child labor doing a dangerous cutting job at a bookbinding factory in Banglabazar (Left) & A child shows his chopped off fingers while working with a cutting machine recently (Right).Photo: Miriam Kuenzli