Child Labour - A Burden that No Child Should Bear


Child Labour - A Burden that No Child Should Bear

11-year-old Tasnima was attending an informal education centre started by World Vision Bangladesh. Her hands were full of cuts and scars from her work at a textile factory, which was cutting fabric for the production of at least 100 pairs of jeans per hour. Working at a young age was nothing new to her, as her mother and brother had been working since her father’s untimely passing. Tasnima said that she would go to work after school every day, but she still had a dream to study abroad and become a doctor. A big and seemingly impossible dream for a little girl working as a child labourer. Looking into her eyes, it would be hard for one to not think of the millions of child labourers, and wonder when their dreams would come true.

Millions of children are in child labour

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) reports that 152 million children worldwide, that is, almost one in every ten children, are in child labour, with 48% of them aged between 5 and 11. This is the time in life when they should be in school, but instead of studying, they have already started working. A perhaps even more inconvenient truth is that 73 million children, including 19 million aged between 5 and 11, are currently involved in some of the worst types of work, such as child soldiers, sex workers and scavengers. These jobs not only pose serious threats to their health and safety, they are often unethical and clandestine, making it difficult for children to exit. Some children find themselves trapped in different supply chains, over 70% of them are in agriculture, growing, for example, tea, tobacco and cocoa, or taking part in poaching, woodcutting and fishing. Another approximately 12% are in various industries, including manufacturing, construction and mining. But, why do children have to start working at such a young age, and why do employers prefer hiring children to adults?

Why are they working?

Under normal circumstances, employers tend to maximise their gain from production by employing low-cost labour. Children are therefore targeted, as they have less bargaining power and are easier to manipulate. Also, there are specific tasks which can be performed more effectively with children’s fingers and smaller body size, and girls are often considered to be more obedient workers. All these are incentives for employers to hire children instead of adults.

For most children in child labour, work is obviously not what they prefer to do. Vulnerable families are sending members to work because the need to feed everyone for survival is of the greatest priority, and that is why even the youngest child is a source of labour and, thus, of income. Therefore, when facing the dilemma between survival and education, many parents opt to send their children to work instead of school. A lack of access to education, failure to understand the risks that work poses to children and attempts to respond to economic emergencies or natural disasters are all reasons that prompt parents to make such desperate decisions. The ILO points out that it is 77% more likely for children in countries affected by conflict to become involved in child labour than the global average.

Source: Global Estimates of Child Labour: Results and trends, 2012-2016, International Labour Office (2017)
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Child labour in the Asia-Pacific region

The 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service was awarded to The Associated Press for an investigation report on labour exploitation in the seafood supply industry in Southeast Asia. Labourers in Samut Sakhon, Thailand, were processing seafood for some 15 hours every day in exchange for a lowly income (around HK$30), and a lot of them were children from Myanmar. The “sweatshop seafood” they produced was then exported to America and Europe, but most consumers were probably not aware of the hidden cost of the seafood.

The Asia-Pacific region has 62 million children in child labour, the second highest number by region. Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of clothing in the world. With many fast fashion brands setting up production in the country, we may even find clothes made in Bangladesh in our own wardrobe. If we think beyond the delicate garments, we may be able to assume that the industry is highly dependent on a dense and low cost labour force. The ILO states that, while progress has been made to combat child labour in Bangladesh, some 1.2 million children are still trapped in the worst forms of child labour. A greater effort must be invested to help release more children from such practice.

Earning as little as HK$4 a day

Tania, from Bangladesh, and her family were abandoned by her mother when she was only six. Since then, she has been taking care of her blind father and baby sister, who was only 18 months old when their mother left. Tania spends a lot of time peeling icy shrimps at a local fish depot. She usually squats for hours in this dirty environment, which has led to pain in her waist and knees, in addition to getting cut by shrimp shells and sharp parts of fish. During the off season, Tania may earn as little as HK$4 a day for all her hard work. During the peak season, her boss may even come to her home in the middle of the night to wake her up for work. Yet, for all the seven to eight hours of overnight shift, she may only earn about HK$15.

According to statistics of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), primary school dropout rate in Bangladesh stands at 33.8%, more or less the same as the global percentage of 5-to-14-year-olds in child labour and deprived of education (32%). Primary education is free in Bangladesh, but Tania, who is now 14 and has a passion for learning, can only afford to spend a few hours each day to attend a community centre for children run by World Vision, where she is taught life skills, as well as learning about her rights to protection and the dangers of trafficking. Tania is still a child labourer, but at least she remains hopeful that she may become a nurse someday and help children in need.

Child labour affects the next generation

When Shahinur* was 12, her own aunt took her into the city to work in a garment factory. But when she arrived, she discovered that she had actually been brought into the sex trade. After being forced to work for two years as a sex worker, she met and fell in love with a man who made her promises of marriage and a good life. Buying into his lies, she followed him to India and Pakistan, only to be repeatedly sold in the sex trade. The man later left her and was arrested for human trafficking when he returned to Bangladesh. It took Shahinur a few years of struggle to save enough money to return to Bangladesh, where she has continued to work as a sex worker.

Sex workers and their children are despised in the community where Shahinur and her 13-year-old son Naim* live. There is a common belief that they should not be entitled to basic rights, some people even consider seeing the face of a sex worker as a bad omen. When Naim first attended World Vision’s Child Friendly Space (CFS) in 2012, he was ashamed and feared that people would ask about his background. But as he gradually interacted with other children and participated in the activities, he learned etiquette and hygienic practices and discovered a passion for drawing. For Naim, drawing allows him to freely express himself without any prejudice and judgment. Under the guidance of CFS staff, Naim was able to explore his talent and perfect his skills, winning awards in art competitions along the way. Shahinur says, “I was really honoured and proud when my son received an award from the hands of the Deputy Commissioner. It was unimaginable and the most incredible moment in my life. His change and development were down to World Vision’s child protection project.” She knows that Naim is making good progress in breaking away from the shackles given to him because of her.

*Names changed

No child should be forced to work

Apparently, legislation alone is insufficient to stop child labour. While an effort from enterprises, consumers and other stakeholders in enforcement and monitoring should be helpful, it is nonetheless difficult to prevent these children from re-entering the labour market, as it involves measures to help improve the livelihood of families. Only when their financial needs are met will families stop sending children to work. It is also necessary to equip children with contextually appropriate education or vocational training, so that they will be able to pursue other jobs. Furthermore, parents should be made aware of the hazards of work to their children, and informed of the benefits of investing in their children’s education and the vital role that education plays in alleviating poverty in families and communities, as well as its direct link to children’s future.

At World Vision’s Child Friendly Space, Naim discovered a passion for drawing, which built up his self-confidence.

Apart from our needs, preferences and the prices, how we spend our money, from food, clothes, sports equipment to mobile phones, also says a lot about how we fulfil our social responsibility and the moral values that we adhere to. Most goods are produced through similar supply chains, made up of raw materials suppliers, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers, before ending up in the hands of consumers. Though it may be difficult for us to understand how the entire supply chain works and whether outsourcing is involved in the production simply by looking at the information on the packaging, everyone in the supply chain, including us as consumers, has a role to play in the prevention of exploitation of children.

In today’s increasingly globalised world, international enterprises inevitably have to answer a few hard questions: how do they ensure a child labour-free supply chain? Do they set up their supply chain in regions where child labour is common? And if they decide to exit from these regions, what can be done to prevent child labourers, from taking up more hazardous jobs, from falling deeper into poverty?

Shahinur was tricked into the sex trade when she was 12, which has brought discrimination upon herself and her son Naim.

Enterprises should first take international standards and laws of the countries where their supply chains are located into consideration, and make sure no children are involved. The laws serve as a mechanism to protect the interests of children, and enterprises should carefully evaluate the possible consequences and impact on society that come with the use of child labour, while ensuring that children’s rights are respected. Employers, contractors and business partners should also acquire an understanding of their personal and corporate responsibilities, including the mechanisms of monitoring and reporting child labour. They should also include terms which forbid the use of child labour when negotiating contracts and partnership agreements.

Child labour is a complicated issue which cannot be solved by enterprises alone, but rather by a joint effort from a broad range of stakeholders, including governments, enterprises, families and societies. Governments should be fastidious and thorough in enforcing laws that forbid child labour. Enterprises should not turn a blind eye to child labour in their supply chains in their pursuit of profits. Consumers should embrace their role as monitors and show their disapproval of child labour by boycotting products made in sweatshops. Parents and communities need to understand that the key to end poverty essentially lies in investing in children’s education.

The ILO shows that the global decline of child labour is slowing down. If the current pace is kept, 121 million children will still be in child labour by 2025. As we observe the World Day Against Child Labour on 12 June, perhaps we can start by reviewing how we spend our money and join the cause to end child labour.

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