During my travels through Bangladesh in January 2018, I got deep insights in the daily life of a boy who is one of Bangladesh’s 4.7 million children that have to work from dawn until doom in order to support their families. Children in Bangladesh are employed because they can be paid less and exploited more than adults.

Furthermore, children work because poverty drives them to need to support themselves and their families. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines child labor as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development”. Worldwide, child labor denies 168 million children the right to education, leisure, and a healthy life.

An unexpected encounter

Sajib is a really wealthy and unbelievable friendly guy. 

Wherever I need help, he is there for me. I want to get a visa for India and he accompanies me to the Indian embassy. I get sick and Sajib goes to the pharmacy to get medicine for me. Oh, and did I mention his warm hospitality or his charming behavior?

I am surprised when Sajib shows me photos of different charity programs which he supports with up to 600 US-$ each year.

Sajib and me met two weeks ago on Couchsrufing.com, where he offered to host me during my time in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. Five days ago, he picked me up from Dhaka international airport and offered me a room in his house.  

Sajib’s eyes were shining proudly when he introduced his twelve years old son, his two daughters and his wife to me.  

From the beginning on I was wondering why Sajib didn’t introduce me to his second son, the taller and thinner one, who is all the time around and lives at his home. I even felt bad for his second son on one evening, when Sajib celebrated together with relatives his marriage anniversary at their rooftop and shouted at him in a really dominant voice to clean up when the party was finished. Sajib even wanted him to clean my room, which was quite unnecessary as I just slept a couple of nights in it. During this occasion, the boy told me his name, Abdul.  

Child labor – still part of Bangladesh’s society

A boy in Burishal, Bangladesh is carrying snacks which he sells to customers

Insecure to ask Sajib why he treats Abdul so strict, I tell Sajib’s nephew Amin about the incident and he reveals to me that Abdul is not Sajib’s son.  

Abdul, who is only 13 years old, lives with Sajib and does all the house work for him and his family. Furthermore, he cleans the apartments which Sajib rents out in Dhaka and sometimes has to stay up all night to make sure that Sajib and his family are safe while they sleep. 

Abdul’s life changed forever when his father died because of tuberculosis in October 2017. Dependent on a regular income, it was Abdul’s duty to support the family financially.

Abdul comes from the small village Muktagacha, which is about 5 hours north by bus from Dhaka. His two sisters are helping his mother at home, while his brother works in a garment factory in Dhaka. 

Due to his working conditions, children like Abdul are considered as modern slaves, as they don’t have the chance to leave their workplace, are completely bound to their employer and therefore, subjected to him.

Nevertheless, Sajib’s nephew Amin calls Abdul one of the “lucky village-children”, as he gets food, shelter and about 30$ per month that he can send to his family, while other children have to work in conditions that are much worse. 

One example are the children who work in one of Dhaka’s many tanneries and get exposed to toxic chemicals that are likely to shorten their lives dramatically. In 2016 volunteer doctors from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) even had to set up clinics in the overcrowded urban slums of Hazaribagh and Kamrangirchar to diagnose and treat those who are victims of their workplace. It was the first time for MSF to intervene in an area for reasons other than natural disasters or war. 

Daily routine

Embarrassed that my good friend Sajib is employing a child, I start to get further interested in child labor.

During the next days, I am observing Abdul closely and talk more with Sajib’s nephew about the topic. Abdul’s day starts early, at 4.40 am, when he has to prepare breakfast for Sajib when he returns from his morning prayer. 

While Sajib’s son goes to school and learns math, history and science, Abdul has to clean floors, dishes and clothes. At 10 am is usually a short break for Abdul during which he likes to go out and play with the neighboring children. 30 minutes, during which he feels like an average child, doing average things in an environment which he freely chooses.

But this feeling doesn’t last very long, as Abdul has to go back inside soon and prepare lunch which will be at 12am. Abdul is not allowed to eat with Sajib’s family so he has to sit on the floor next to the dining room. 

It’s 1pm now and Sajib’s family is having a nap, while Abdul cleans the dishes and prepares vegetables for dinner. From the moment on when Sajib wakes up from his nap, Abdul has to be available on call and either clean one of Sajib’s many apartments or do other necessary housework.

It’s 8pm now. Today was really exhausting for Abdul, as Sajib sent him to three different apartments, spread across Dhaka. All that he wants now is sleep. Just sleep…

But that’s not possible now, as there are still dishes to clean and floors to sweep. 

At 10pm Abdul finally gets the sleep he deserves and lays down at his small niche on the floor and directly falls into deep, dreamless sleep.

For my host Sajib it seems to be totally acceptable, having a child working for him, even though he is a strict Muslim who prays five times a day and follows the Islamic rules. 

Child labor like this is not a rarity in Bangladesh and Abdul is one of the almost 5 million children in Bangladesh that have to work multiple hours a day in dreadful circumstances. According to a survey by the Overseas Development Institute, 15% of all children in Bangladesh from the age of 6 to 14 cannot go to school and have to work full-time. For children over 14 years the number is 50%. 

The extent of child labor in Bangladesh’s textile industry was laid bare in July 2016 when nine-years-old Sagar Barmanwas brutally killed at one of Dhaka’s largest spinning factories. 

As Barman started resisted to continue his work, eight workers brutally forced a compressor into the boy’s rectum and turned on the machine.

Hence Barman was brought to a local hospital in which he died of internal injuries a couple of days later.

The western responsibility

Since decades, Bangladesh is known as a low-income country that attracts western companies such as “Primark” or “H&M” to produce their clothes in the tiny Asian nation.

Due to the low production costs at an expense of the Bangladeshi labourers, products that were manufactured in Bangladesh can be sold for far less than products that were produced in a high-income country with social security and health care systems.

The pressure for low prices in a society that thinks it’s better “to buy new than to repair”, is high and therefore, changes in the laborer’s conditions are little. Local Producers that are the suppliers of huge western brands are competing for profitable orders and do anything possible to keep their production cost low.

To understand the high pressure laid upon garment producers in Bangladesh, I met with Sayed Abdullah, project manager of a local garment factory in Dhaka, that produces clothes for different western sports companies.

“We have to save money where we can in order to stay profitable. Our clients give us the smallest rate they have to pay for the specific items and we have to find a way to produce it for them and stay profitable. A difficult task to manage.”

Abdullah claims that he pays his workers according to the clients he has.

“About 6 months ago, I worked with a renown western company which had high production and labor rights standards. Due to their higher production budget, we were able to raise our laborer’s salaries by 25%.”

According to Abdullah, the greater responsibility lies in us, the consumers of clothes.

“The next time you go shopping, take a minute and ask yourself: “Why is that t-shirt so cheap? Is it possible that somebody else is getting exploited just to sell the t-shirt at such a low rate?”

Child labor – Bangladesh’s biggest burden for sustainable and equal development

If Abdul is lucky, he won’t be exposed to such horrible tortures in case he might neglect to work one day. 

But what does Abdul’s future look like?

While other children go to school. learn how to read and write and later on qualify for a proper job, Abdul doesn’t have those chances and will always have to do the lowest-class jobs which don’t require specific education.

Bangladesh’s government is struggling to cope with the huge challenge of fighting child labor in the country and NGOs are a major player in the challenge of getting children out of factories and into schools.  

Bureaucratic burdens, as well as corruption and mismanagement are the two main reasons why Bangladesh’s progress of development is so slow.

Child labor leads to a vicious circle, in which generations will end up in the same working environments as their parents before because no generation gets the chance to improve its level of education. Children who have to work instead of going to school, will never be able to generate a sustainable income, as their education remains little and will never escape the low-income-class. Bangladesh’s social security is not capable of caring for the 160 million Bangladeshis and therefore, low or middle-income households are highly vulnerable to financial calamities such as sickness or indebtness.

In a country, in which more than 30% of the population are under 15 years old, don’t have access to higher education and have to support their families financially, opportunities have to be developed as soon as possible to give those children the chance for a safe and purposeful life. 

What can I personally do against child labor in Bangladesh, living thousands of miles away from Asia?

Simple as that: Consume responsibly!

Our world today is more connected than ever before and actions that are taken at one part of the world influence outcomes on the other side of the world.

Low product prices as an example often result in low incomes for manufacturers or huge ecological damages, such as palm oil production in Indonesia.

The same rule is applicable for the worldwide garment industry. Producers save money wherever possible to keep their business profitable. Developed countries, such as the USA or countries in Western Europe have strict regulations that restrict the abilities of companies to safe production costs, which undeveloped countries like Bangladesh don’t have.

Due to corruption, bureaucratic burdens and mild state control, it is still possible for garment producers to employ and exploit children in Bangladesh.

Companies that rely on the products of garment producers are only interested in the cheap prices for which they can purchase garments but hardly in the conditions under which the products were produced. The market demands cheap clothes and clothing companies provide them.

As long as the market demands products that cheap, Bangladesh’s children will still get exploited.

“The market” is us, the consumers. If we want to improve labor conditions in the garment industry, we have to pay an accurate price for the products we purchase.

Customers who are concerned about the conditions under which their clothes were produced, have several options to fight child labor by purchasing products which stand for fair work ethics.

The Fair Wear Foundation, as an example, has a list of over 120 brands that have signed up to its code of labor practices, which do not allow for the use of child labor. Accredited brands must ensure with regular audits that all of the suppliers in the cut-make-trim stage of production meet these standards and don’t employ children. Therefore, the system goes beyond most companies’ in-house policies.

Transparency is the most important and also the most complicated factor for companies to fight child labor in their production chain.

Other accreditation schemes, such as the Fairtrade Label Organisation, the Global Organic Textile Standard and the Ethical Trading Initiative, struggle with the lack of transparency in the textile and garment supply chain and are consequently, not considered as “child labor free”-labels.

We, the customers, are the root of the problem, as long as we keep on demanding prices for clothing that are under fair circumstances not bearable.

Each of us should think twice before buying clothes, “Which brand am I supporting right now? Is this brand registered at the Fair Wear Foundation or any other remarkable anti-child labor foundation?”, or even better: “Do I really need this new article of clothing?”

Until there is a remarkable demand for sustainably produced clothes, child labor will continue in Bangladesh and destinies like the one of Abdul will remain an integral part of Bangladesh’s society.

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