Habib, an eight-year old boy, was cleaning machinery parts. His little hands were coated with chemicals and the T-shirt which was probably white once, looked unwashed and dirty, and hung loose on his thin frame.
The boy was working at a small unit at the Tipu Sultan Road in Old Dhaka, one of the main hubs of light engineering industries in the country. The workshop repairs mainly air compressors of garments factories as well as spare parts of textiles and spinning mills.
Habib works nine hours a day for only Tk 250 a week. About 3000 factories are running in this area with more than 20,000 workers. Locals have said almost every factory has one or two child labour aged between 8 and 16.
Light engineering is the mother sector for other industries. Over 90 per cent units meet domestic needs and its market size is Tk 600 billion. Nearly 40,000 factories are under the industry while some 1.0 million workers are engaged across the country, according to Bangladesh Engineering Industry Owners' Association (BEIOA).
Bangladesh government identified 38 activities as hazardous for children in 2013. Of them, working with lethe-machine, welding and metal substance is directly linked to light engineering industries.
The existing labour law of Bangladesh prohibits employment of children less than 14 years of age. It also makes illegal hazardous forms of child labour for persons aged below 18.
Yet, a visit to different workshops and factories in Old Dhaka showed that not a single factory took protection measures for their workers including children.
At one factory, a 25-year old worker, who wished anonymity, said no factory in this area cared about workers' security. It seems that there is no culture of maintaining occupational safety. "It is obviously harmful for every worker. Especially children are more vulnerable," he told this FE correspondent.
During the conversation, he was welding some things, and a 14-year old boy was helping him. But both were without any eye protector and gloves. "These children come here because of poverty, otherwise they might have gone to school," the man said.
Abdulla Al Mamun, director of Child Rights Governance and Child Protection of Save the Children in Bangladesh, said as per definition, children working at light engineering factories are doing hazardous jobs.
But some of them are treated as slaver as they cannot move from the factories for months. They are forced to take heavy workload with minimum or no wages many times. They also face different types of sexual violence, especially children who stay overnight in the workplaces, he said.
Because of poverty and lack of care by families, children come from villages and outskirts of the capital to work in light engineering industries in Old Dhaka. Parents or relatives drop them off here.
When asked, Habib's employer Md Afroz said he was not willing to recruit such a small boy. But his mother had died and father was not caring about him. So his aunt left him here.
"Actually, the boy doesn't do hard work. He only cleans machinery," he added.
The last survey of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) in 2013 showed that there were some 1.7 million child labour in the country. Of them, 1.2 million were doing hazardous jobs.
Why Child Labour is Preferred by Owners?
The main target of hiring child labour is the profit making. Employers can easily control and exploit them. Many times children do work more than 10 hours a day without any wages, said Abdus Shahid Mahmood, director, Shishu Adhikar Forum, a network of child rights NGOs (non-government organisations).
He said the beneficiaries of cheap labour are mainly buyers as they get the products at much lower prices than those of imported ones.
Abdur Razzaque, president of the BEIOA, said buyers get machinery and parts from the local market at five times less prices than those of imported ones.
So, many companies including mills, factories and pharmaceutical units are taking machinery from these industries, he said.
However, Mr Razzaque claimed that this sector is almost child labour-free. "Recently, I did not see any child in this sector," he added.
Shahin Khan, a factory owner, said adult workers switch jobs frequently due to lower wages. They have no ability to provide high wages. So they depend on child labour.
Due to lack of available opportunities for skill training, poor parents also prefer sometimes to employ their children in this sector so that they can have technical knowledge and get good jobs in future, he also said.
Initiatives To Stop Child Labour
Bangladesh government has set a target to eliminate child labour by 2021. So they have taken a project worth Tk 2.84 billion to withdraw 100,000 children from hazardous jobs by 2020. The project is being implemented by the Ministry of Labour and Employment (MoLE).
Syed Ahmed, additional secretary of MoLE said they were working focusing on an objective of Sustainable Development Goals to eliminate child labour by 2025.
"We will take another mega project soon to withdraw at least 500,000- 700,000 children from hazardous jobswithin 2025," he said.
Parents will get allowance and children skill training under these projects to discourage their employment for doing risky jobs, he added.
What Child Rights Activists Are Saying?
Rafeza Shaheen, coordinator of a programme at Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), who works on child labour issues, has said apart from 38 hazardous sectors, many new areas remain unexplored and light engineering industry is one of them.
Child labour could be eliminated easily, if all children were brought under primary education. "So, at first the government has to acknowledge that all children cannot go to school; despite their announcement," she said.
Ms Rafeza also suggested the enhancing social safety net programme for poor families to continue education of their children.
Save the Children's Abdulla Al Mamun said it would be almost difficult to eliminate child labour within the timeframe, set by the government, if monitoring and coordinated actions are not taken.
Generally formal industries are inspected by the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE). Informal sectors remain ignored. But child labour is used mainly by small and unplanned factories, he added.
Contacted, Dr Nazmun Nahar, assistant inspector general (Health) of DIFE, said they were facing acute shortage of manpower. So they were going for inspection on a priority basis.
"As a community we are also not sensitive about child labour. We care about only our child, not for all children. We are not inclusive and non-discriminatory to the children. So an awareness campaign is also very necessary to help eliminate child labour," Mr Mamun observed.
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