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OP-ED: Let the children play

  • Published at 10:22 pm May 31st, 2021
child labour

Political will is essential in eliminating child labour

It has been 20 years since the publication of Myron Weiner’s classic, “The Child and State in India.” Tragically, the findings of the study remain relevant to our contemporary times, bearing strong resonance to the existence of child labour in Bangladesh. 

Even though Weiner’s research examines the factors associated with the existence of child labour in India, Weiner’s central argument identifies the employment of children as a cultural practice where hierarchy and strict notions of class and caste values predominate. The study articulates that child labour has been eliminated in countries where universal primary education was implemented despite opposition from business groups. 

While the universalization of primary education faced opposition from the industrialists, the states were able to implement it due to intense pressure from the trade unions. In poverty-stricken medieval Europe, child labour was very much in vogue. Children were paid significantly less than adults and worked longer hours, and they were not unionized. 

This made them vulnerable to exploitation and created unemployment for adults. As a consequence, the trade unions severely opposed child labour and pushed the state in outlawing it.

The situation in contemporary Bangladesh is very similar to the circumstances that Weiner describes in his classic book about child labour and education policies in India -- the debates framed along similar lines. NGOs that work for labour rights campaign for better work conditions of children instead of helping with the enforcement of the ban on child labour. 

The debates are constructed within a particular framework that subtly legitimizes child labour despite its ban. The media hardly provides any news coverage on the plight of these children. Perhaps, we are too immune to the sufferings of the poor, so it is not seen worthy of public discussion. 

By and large, children of the poor are seen as economic objects -- cheap labour to be precise, where formal schooling is seen as an impediment to acquiring apprenticeship. Hence, children as young as four work in factories, car repair shops, and other cottage industries. 

They make ends meet to pave their way into the job market. The hazardous work conditions decrease the long-run productivity of our economy as it increases the burden of non-communicable diseases. Many believe that 14 is too old to start, and expertise needs to be obtained from a much younger age -- hence this practice continues, and many children fall into the vicious trap of illiteracy.

Other post-colonial and industrialized countries eliminated child labour through the implementation of compulsory education. Even though all these countries largely differed in their historical circumstances, they all viewed education as necessary for children. 

In Western countries, religion and trade unions played a major role, whereas, in other post-colonial countries like China and Korea, nationalist narratives were framed centred on the provision of better education for children. 

Education was seen as a way to escape from imperial domination. All these countries formulated their education policy bearing the long-term consequences of their economy. Even though education is primarily seen in our country as a way to facilitate upward social mobility, the notion is stuck within a theoretical bubble as we only pay lip service to it. 

This becomes evident through the country’s elitist education system, which is demarcated along class lines of the haves and the have nots -- English medium schools are at the top of the hierarchy. This makes meritocracy a structural privilege, where the system is skewed in favour of the children of the wealthy. 

To eradicate child labour, the universalization of primary education is an essential component, as Weiner’s study has shown. The strong emphasis on providing primary education often gets missed from these debates on child labour or is intentionally ignored. This is hardly surprising since the children of the elites receive education at expensive English Medium schools that the rest cannot afford. 

As a consequence of this disparity in the provision of education, drop-out rates remain high as families find it more profitable for children to work in factories. Unfortunately, child labour is increasing in our country due to rising social inequality. Children continue to work in poor conditions and receive meagre wages, as their plight is normalized in our culture and does not generate moral outrage.

However, as Bangladesh is aspiring to be a middle-income country, we need to be on the right side of history, paving the path for eliminating child labour. In medieval Europe, these debates around child labour were also framed along the same lines.

The key to eliminating child labour lies in the provision of quality primary education. Unfortunately, our primary education system lies in shambles. Recruitments in these low-level teaching positions are often based on patron-client ties rather than meritocracy, which deprives qualified candidates of access to the teaching profession. 

Moreover, due to our highly centralized recruitment procedures, local administrations do not have the authority, or lacks the resources, to hire teachers locally. The systematic, structural barriers pose a strong impediment to the universalization of our primary education. 

Perhaps, we can draw lessons from the health sector that is penetrated with numerous success stories: Many of the projects succeeded due to strong synergy between the state, NGOs, and the local community that my research shows. 

In the education sector, on the contrary, this synergy is somewhat missing. We need to design education programs centred around community ownership of primary schools and create linkages between teachers, schools, and families of children.

Namia Akhtar is a graduate of Heidelberg University, Germany. Currently, she works in the development sector.  Email: [email protected]

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