Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 4 Issue 14 | September 24, 2004 |

   Cover Story
   News Notes
   Slice of Life
   A Roman Column
   Time Out
   Human Rights
   Straight Talk
   Book Review
   Dhaka Diary
   New Flicks
   Write to Mita

   SWM Home


Human Rights

Getting Kids out of Hard Labour

Aasha Mehreen Amin

For developing countries like Bangladesh, child labour often translates to sheer survival of children. For developed countries it is an evil that violates the basic right of a child to education. The two opposing views came at loggerheads in the early 1990s when (in 1992) a bill was presented in the US Senate to ban imports made with child labour. Before this bill, trade unions, human rights groups, consumer and religious organisations under the umbrella of Child Labour Coalition, had promoted legislation for such a prohibition. The media hype (mainly from the West) about the grueling hours kids had to work in the garment factories created the image of the industry as a monster eating up children's health and future. With growing international criticism, the BGMEA (Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association) got busy urging its members to remove underage workers from their work places to conform with the national Factory Act that set a minimum age for employment of 14 years.

According to media reports, around 40,000 to 50,000 children lost their jobs. It was generally believed that many of them were forced into hazardous forms of work, including prostitution. In Bangladesh, the ILO's (International Labour Organisation) main intervention through IPEC (International Programme on Elimination of Child Labour) has been in the garments sector, in particular, supporting and organising these projects that have helped displaced child garment workers to go to school. In addition to regular schooling the ILO projects have tried to create employment opportunities for the parents of these children. This is the result of an MOU signed in 1995 by the BGMEA, the ILO and UNICEF and endorsed by the Government of Bangladesh. So has this agreement really worked to make the lives of former child workers better? According to Frans Röselaers, Director, IPEC, while visiting Dhaka recently, Bangladesh has been more proactive in its commitment to end child labour compared to many other countries with better economic conditions. "Bangladesh was one of the first countries to become a member of IPEC," says Röselaers.

The MOU programme had several components. It included a ban on new recruitment of child workers but also a temporary halt to the firing of under-aged workers until an education programme was in place. Children, moreover, would go to non-formal schools and would get educational stipends to make up for the loss of income. A monitoring and verification system was also part of this project. In 2000, skills training and credit and income maintenance were incorporated. A steering committee was formed to coordinate the programme and comprised of representatives of the BGMEA, the Government of Bangladesh, the ILO and UNICEF with the US embassy as an observer. While UNICEF developed the education programme with NGO partners, the ILO was responsible for verifying and monitoring. Over 300 NFE (non-formal education) centres were set up with trained teachers. In late 1999, the skills training and micro-credit projects were started.

While the MOU programmes seemed to have all the elements of success, there was widespread criticism that laying off children from the factories had forced them to take far more hazardous jobs elsewhere. Roselaers is skeptical about this allegation."This may have happened in '93 and '94. But the number of children who got lost is very limited, according to UNICEF and ILO evaluation studies." According to the report that came out this August, says Röselaers, around six percent (of former child garment workers) said they ended up on the streets. "One percent of the girls surveyed said they had 'heard' that young female workers had been forced into prostitution. "It is therefore important to distinguish between a panic approach and a coordinated approach," says Röselaers. "The consequence of industry and government to involve everyone internally and externally, was a very positive approach. It helped many children in a sustainable way and has become a prototype for child labour policies in other countries."

The programme, Röselaers admits, has its limitations. According to the UNICEF and ILO evaluation report, only about 30 percent of children working in the garment industry during the period of the programme (1995-2001) went to MOU schools. There weren't enough schools and many children did not even know about the MOU programme and the stipends offered. Distance to school and irregular stipends led to children dropping out of the MOU schools."Of course there are shortcomings, but these have not been hidden but registered," says Röselaer. "The programme has given us important insights in to the way the child labour presents itself and the way we can tackle it. It also suggests how UNICEF and ILO can work better."

Röselaer says that other industries have addressed the issue of child labour and asked for ILO's assistance.

He also adds that ILO continues to address the worst forms of child labour, such as prostitution and working in bidi factories. He says that ILO intends to intensify the programme and reach as many children as possible.

But why has ILO been preoccupied with garment workers when many children are engaged in far worse forms of labour such as domestic work? ILO has in fact been collaborating with Shoishab Bangladesh, an NGO that works with child domestic workers, to help them get education and be treated better. The project has just ended this year and covered 5,000 child domestic workers. The problem with interventions dealing with child domestic workers, says Röselaer, is that there is no baseline data to work with as is the case with an industry like garments."Child domestic workers are more diffused," says Roselaer, "more hidden in a sense, and so, difficult to trace."

"In Africa we had to go in a round about way to get accurate information," relates Röselaer. There were differences in neighbourhoods, the type of employers and age differences. First we helped girls (domestic workers) to get organised into clubs where they could take classes, for leisure, sports, etc. This gave us the opportunity to interview them to understand their needs." Röselaer says that this was a very lengthy process but proved to be very useful in the long run. It also helped in understanding how to target advertisements through radio and television.

Changes, adds Röselaer, can also be brought about by imposing regulations on civil servants who employ domestic workers. These would include limited working hours, minimum wage, decent treatment and so on. "It is a long road to go through. Traditions and habits are difficult to change. But we are in constant dialogue with governments. It is not a question of pointing fingers but finding constructive solutions," says Roselaer.


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004