Children are the future builders of our nation, yet many of them are forced to work at a young age instead of receiving an education. This denies them the opportunity to experience the joys of childhood and pursue their dreams. Child labour is not a new problem, as it has been a part of society since ancient times. However, it has become a critical issue in recent years, with the rise of globalisation and new economic policies formulated in line with structural adjustment programmes.
In South Asian countries, child labour is a severe problem that is prevalent in many industries, including hotels, factories, quarries, and homes. Despite laws prohibiting child labour, it continues to persist, and many children are exploited and forced to work in hazardous conditions. Fortunately, there has been an increasing global effort to eradicate child labour. International organisations, NGOs, governments, and employers and workers’ organisations are working together to tackle this issue.
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It is heartening to see greater acceptance from governments to acknowledge child labour as a serious problem and their willingness to cooperate with international organisations and NGOs. The government of Bangladesh has also recognised the severity of the issue and has taken steps to eradicate it. It is now worth examining how the government defines child and child labour and how far it has gone to solve the problem.
THE CHILD AND CHILD LABOUR
The Bangladesh government has enacted a labour law titled “The Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (Act XLII of 2006),” which consolidates and simplifies various relevant laws. The Act defines the terms “child” and “adolescent” based on age. According to Section 2(8) of the Act, an individual who is at least 14 years old but under 18 is considered an “adolescent.” Section 2(63) defines a “child” as someone who has not yet reached the age of 14.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines “child labour” as work that denies children their childhood, potential, and dignity, and is detrimental to their physical and mental development. It refers to the work that is socially, mentally, physically, or morally harmful and dangerous to children. It interferes with children’s education by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school, causing them to leave school prematurely, or forcing them to combine school attendance with excessively long and arduous work.
In the most extreme cases, child labour involves children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses, and/or forced to survive on the streets of major cities at a very young age.
CHILD LABOUR – A DEVELOPMENT ISSUE
In Bangladesh, the root cause of child labor is poverty. Families facing economic hardship often resort to having their children work in order to earn enough money for basic necessities. Education becomes unaffordable for these families and children are forced to work instead. Rizwanul Islam, Former Special Advisor, Employment Sector, International Labour Office, Geneva, said that child labor in Bangladesh is a development issue rather than just an enforcement issue. While inspection and enforcement of laws are necessary, it is important to address why children are forced to work, he emphasized. Parents send their children to work because they need the income, and there are still barriers preventing all children from attending school. A comprehensive strategy is needed that combines development and enforcement approaches, and involves a wide range of stakeholders such as employers, trade unions, NGOs, international agencies, and the government. The government should also consider expanding social safety net programs to support families who are forced to resort to child labor.
HOW FAR HAS BANGLADESH GONE TO ERADICATE CHILD LABOUR
Bangladesh’s Government is committed to fulfilling its constitutional obligation to eradicate child labor and promote child rights. The country has ratified the UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) at the international level, which safeguards and advances children’s rights, including the right to free and compulsory education (Articles 28 & 29), protection from hazardous work that interrupts their education and growth (Article 32), and the right to an adequate standard of living. Bangladesh has also ratified the ILO Convention on the Worst Form of Child Labour, 1999 (No. 182), vowing to urgently implement effective measures to prohibit and eliminate the most extreme forms of child labor (Article 1).
Recently, Bangladesh has made significant progress in its efforts to eradicate child labor by ratifying the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138). In addition, in January 2022, Bangladesh ratified the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labor Convention (Protocol No. 29), further solidifying its global pledge to prevent and eliminate forced labor. With this ratification, Bangladesh has now ratified all eight of the ILO’s ‘Fundamental Conventions’, which address social and labor issues deemed essential for ensuring workers’ rights.
The ratification of the Minimum Age Convention demonstrates the government of Bangladesh’s goal to eliminate all forms of child labour by 2025.Begum Monnujan Sufian
State Minster of Labour and Employment
At the national level, Bangladesh has promulgated the “Children Act 2013” in order to align with UNCRC framework for child protection. The country previously enacted the Labour Act in 2006, which incorporates a section on child labor. This legislation prohibits the employment of children under the age of 14, and also forbids hazardous forms of child labor for individuals under 18 years of age. However, children aged 12 and older may undertake “light work” that does not jeopardize their physical and mental development, and does not disrupt their education. Under the auspices of this act the government has established seven Labour Courts and one Labour Appellate Tribunal within Bangladesh. These courts have been set up to enforce the provisions of the act, and violators can face a range of penalties. The Penal Code 1860 of Bangladesh imposes stringent penalty for prohibition of forced labour.
In our constitution, the Fundamental Principles of State Policy (FPSP) and Fundamental Rights prohibit all types of forced labor, including child labor, and allow for legal recourse through writ petitions. Additionally, Article 17 of the Constitution of Bangladesh provides clear instructions on mandatory, cost-free education for children, while Article 18 addresses the protection of their nutrition and health. Furthermore, Article 28 mandates the enactment of specialized laws for the welfare and development of children, while Article 34 prohibits child labor through coercion.
Additionally, the Ministry of Labour and Employment has implemented the National Child Labour Elimination Policy (NCEP) 2010, which includes an order that prohibits children under 18 years old from working in 38 identified hazardous occupations. The primary goal of this policy is to systematically rehabilitate and withdraw children from all forms of child labor, including hazardous work, and reintegrate them into society through education, financial incentives, and extensive awareness campaigns, with a particular emphasis on disadvantaged children at the divisional and upazila levels. Moreover, the Government of Bangladesh has adopted the “National Plan of Action (NPA) to Eliminate Child Labour (2020- 2025)” to promptly eradicate all forms of child labor.
Finally, NGOs such as BRAC and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) have partnered with the ILO to support children of garment workers and provide them with education and vocational training as a means of rehabilitation.
Bangladesh is making commendable progress in eradicating child labour, but there are still some shortcomings that require attention. While existing legislation and policies on child labour target the formal industrial and commercial sectors, recruitment of children in informal sectors remains unaddressed. Domestic work, agriculture, small industries, and services often hire children below the age of 15 in exchange for meager wages, sometimes as low as USD 10 per month. The government should prioritize the eradication of child labour in the informal sector, where most instances of child exploitation occur.
Despite the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targeting the eradication of child labour by 2025, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) has not updated its data on child labour even after several years since the global goals were formed. The last survey conducted by the state-run agency in 2013 showed that 9.7% or over 34.50 lakh children out of a total of 3.96 crore were involved in child labour, with 12.80 lakh children working in risky and hazardous jobs. Although Section 40 of the Labour Act 2006 prohibits the employment of adolescent workers in hazardous work, the reality is different, as adolescents are frequently employed in dangerous jobs in sectors such as transportation and informal workshops.
Despite having laws in place, their implementation has not been fully successful. One of the primary reasons for the partial failure of the implementation of child labour laws is the lack of monitoring and enforcement. Moreover, the punishment for violating Section 284 of the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006, by employing a child or adolescent, is a nominal fine of up to 5,000 taka, which is insufficient to deter such a severe offense and contributes to the growth of child labour. Additionally, inadequate labour courts cause delays in handling labour complaints and petitions, leading to further complications. Therefore, increasing the number of labour courts is necessary to ensure prompt justice for labour rights victims, including children.
In addition, various socio-economic factors, including poverty, insufficient awareness, entrenched traditions, lack of parental education, and other miscellaneous factors, significantly contribute to the widespread problem of child labour in Bangladesh which government should take look into.
WHAT WE NEED TO DO TO STOP CHILD LABOUR
- Child labour is a result of poverty, and eradicating poverty is necessary to eliminate child labour.
- Changing our mindset to view other people’s children as our own is essential to end inhuman child labour.
- Identifying and addressing the issues of children under the age of 14 at the district level is crucial in stopping child labour.
- Implementing village and town-based rehabilitation projects, creating a list of children employed due to financial constraints, and providing child allowances can help to prevent child labour.
- The government should enforce existing laws and develop short, medium, and long-term plans to eliminate child labour through a joint effort.
- To eliminate child labour, it is crucial to identify where it occurs and disseminate information about it through the media.
- Owners who employ children because they are cheaper should be punished.
- Child labour must be given priority in the national social security strategy.
- Every working child must have access to education.
- Public awareness campaigns should be implemented to raise awareness about child labour and children’s rights.
To conclude, it is crucial to recognize that children are the future leaders of our nation and as such, we must prioritize their education and well-being. It is our responsibility to free children from the scourge of labour and provide them with the resources they need to become worthy citizens. As a society, we must come together to raise awareness about child labour and take action to prevent it. This involves proliferating proper education, tackling poverty, and enforcing existing laws. However, we must also recognize that true change can only come from a collective commitment to eliminating this issue. Let us work together to protect the rights of children and ensure that they have the opportunity to lead a bright and prosperous future.