Beyond economic and social costs, the ultimate cost is the loss of human dignity
The Narayanganj factory fire recently claimed the lives of several child labourers, kicking off a blame game between factory owners, employees, inspectors, parents, and even the children themselves.
The World Day Against Child Labour was observed on June 12.
Fast forward to just one month, Bangladesh witnesses that horrific industrial accident in the middle of 2021 being the international year for the elimination of child labour.
According to the latest National Child Labour Survey 2013 by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the number of child labour in the country is 1.7 million, of which 1.2 million are trapped in hazardous forms of child labour.
New data on child labour is expected to be revealed around mid-2022 by BBS.
On July 11, Unicef released a statement on child deaths in the factory fire, saying that this tragic incident brings to light yet again that despite laws that should protect them, many children in Bangladesh are not only working, but they are working in hazardous conditions.
“There are three vital recommendations to eliminate child labour. Amendment of Labour Law is needed to ensure stringent sanctions, and legal protection is required to protect child domestic workers. There should be an alignment between the age of compulsory education and minimum age for entry into the workforce, which is 14 in case of Bangladesh,” said Syeda Munira Sultana, child labour programme coordinator, ILO Bangladesh.
“Also, a linkage needs to be developed with the social protection programme, which may be conditional to withdrawal of children from labour. This will support the households of the vulnerable as well as withdrawn children for economic empowerment,” she added.
The Child Labour focal at ILO Bangladesh also stated that children who are working above the legally permissible age of 14 are defined as adolescents in Bangladesh labour law.
To ensure their rights regarding occupational safety and health conditions, the prescribed laws need to be followed by employers and adequately inspected by the Inspection department.
A new report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Unicef identified that 8.4 million children entered into child labour in just the last four years, bringing the number of children in child labour to 160 million worldwide.
Millions more are still at risk due to the impacts of Covid-19. Unfortunately, the situation in Bangladesh is no better.
Dr. Mostafizur Rahman, joint inspector general of Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE), told Dhaka Tribune that the maximum punishment for employing child labour (below 14 years of age) is a fine of Tk5,000.
Even if DIFE identifies incidents of child labour, the only action they can take is to file a case in the court of law — which can easily, and usually does, linger for months and years.
There is no scope for enforcing agencies to impose fines on the spot either. However, they often do awareness raising programs for employers not to employ child labourers.
The vicous cycle of child labour plays an important role in the larger cycle of poverty. Once a child enters into the trap of child labour, they almost never get to complete their school education, let alone higher studies.
By the time they turn 18 and enter the adult workforce, they have no option but to continue as an unskilled labourer.
When generations after generations are forced to enter into child labour just to keep their family afloat, how are they expected to break free of the cycle of poverty by themselves?
While inaugurating the international year for elimination of child labour 2021, Guy Rider, director-general of ILO, stated, ‘There is no place for child labour in society, it robs children of their future and keeps families in poverty.”
Not only is child labour robbing millions of children of their right to education and a fair future, it is also contributing to adult unemployment.
Workplaces often employ child labourers, for inhumanely low wages, in place of adult workers to whom they would have to pay at least the legal minimum wage.
Apart from the moral/ethical flags it raises, such employers’ profit-maximising strategies also end up harming the economy as it adds to unemployment, lower GDP, and lower living standards.
The 2016 paper Economic Growth and Child Labor in Low Income Economies by Dartmouth professor Eric V. Edmonds mentions, “Working children are both a cause and a consequence of a lack of economic growth. Widespread child employment dampers future economic growth through its negative impact on child development and depresses current growth by reducing unskilled wages and discouraging the adoption of skill-intensive technologies.”
Ultimately, child labour amounts to precarious amounts of economic and social costs, but no cost is greater than the loss of dignity of children, and in the worst cases, the loss of their lives.