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.