Powerful lobby against child labour paves the way to a safe future

Door Redactie 18 januari 2022

In an area teeming with working children, the labour NGO Bangladesh Labour Foundation (BLF), in cooperation with Mondiaal FNV, is engaging in the fight against child labour. Thanks to lobbying, the Keraniganj neighbourhood in the Bengalese capital of Dhaka has been recognised by the government as an area of priority for the eradication of child labour. BLF now works jointly with all the local parties committed to child labour-free workplaces.

Invisible, behind many doors, in stuffy poorly ventilated rooms, some 120 thousand children under the age of seventeen sit behind sewing machines. In the Keraniganj neighbourhood in the Bengalese capital of Dhaka, unregistered sewing machine factories and sweatshops in the informal garment sector offer work to 350,000 garment workers. Between 20 and 30 thousand of them are fourteen or even younger. Not only do they work long hours for the local market, but they eat and sleep in the same room. They are not paid a wage, but every week are given fifty to a hundred taka (between a half and a whole euro), from which they can buy soap and toothpaste.

Hazardous work

Not for nothing does the textile industry fall into the category of hazardous work. The working conditions are poor, especially in the unregistered small factories. Labour laws are violated. Health and safety in the workplace barely exists. And sexual harassment, or gender-based violence, is commonplace.

BLF and Mondiaal FNV initiate joint lobby to eradicate child labour

The NGO BLF is linked to one of the national trade union federations, the Bangladesh Textile & Garment Workers League (BTGWL). Mondiaal FNV has been connected with BLF for a good ten years now. Child labour in the downstream industry had for some time been a focus point, but from 2018 on, more concrete steps started being taken. BLF Executive Director Ashraf Uddin talks about how BLF and Mondiaal FNV investigated this neighbourhood, which was when a lobby was launched to involve more parties in child labour elimination.

Taking labour inspectors into the neighbourhood

“In Bangladesh, children may engage in light work from the age of fourteen, but not hazardous work and not for more than five hours a day”, he tells us in a video call. “From the age of eighteen, work is officially permitted. However, because this is all to do with unregistered factories and sweatshops, these children in Keraniganj remain invisible. So, we began sending labour inspectors into the neighbourhood to expose what goes on there.” This was followed up by work visits by public sector workers, politicians and ministers. An important mission, with significant consequences.

Still from video 'Child labour in Keraniganj' 

Priority zone

BLF previously focused primarily on local awareness of the issue, by holding discussions with employers and workshop owners. However, because of the work visits, the government now woke up to the situation as well. A national plan of action to combat child labour was developed, requiring the worst forms of child labour to be eliminated by 2023 and child labour as a whole by 2025. As of January 2021, a national council to combat child labour was established, in which BLF has a say. In addition, the Ministry of Labour has now identified Keraniganj as a priority zone.

Employers given a warning

“From January 2022, we’ll be running a pilot in which the Directorate of Inspection of Factory and Establishment (DIFE) will play a key role”, Uddin explains. “The inspectors will be visiting all the factories and sewing workshops in this area and the unions will also be keeping their eyes and ears open. The employers will not be permitted to recruit any new children and will be issued with a warning if they violate the new rules. After five warnings, the inspectorate will shut down the business. Any children still at work there will be identified and linked back to their town or area of origin. These are often orphans, or children from broken families, or who have parents who themselves are unable to work. They often come from rural areas, and our intention is to make the local authorities responsible for them.”

Social dialogue for child labour-free places to work

Trade unions are playing an important part in this process. BLF set up local unions, which also became affiliated to the large trade union federation BTGWL. The elected leaders were trained by BLF and Mondiaal FNV. They then entered into discussions with employers and local authorities, and engaged the local community in the fight against child labour.

Partly on the advice of Mondiaal FNV, BLF mainly restricts itself to the transition to child labour-free places of work, as child care provision for working children is the responsibility of the Bengal authorities. There are plans in place, Uddin goes on to say.

“For example, boarding schools where children learn technical skills and have a place to stay until they have reached the legal age to start work. These kinds of education centres are already in existence, but still insufficient in number. And we would prefer them to be in the town or area they themselves come from.”

Still from the video 'Child Labour in Keraniganj' 

Mondiaal FNV happy with outcome of lobby

Since 2017, policy advisor Ruben Korevaar of Mondiaal FNV has been involved in the projects run by BLF. He is “incredibly proud” of BLF’s achievements. “Thanks to our own lobby and those of the unions, Keraniganj has become visible and is now recognised as a priority zone. We are not ourselves in a position to remove all these children from their work situation, as to do that you really need more partners. As well as a government that would take on responsibility for them. In view of the scale and complexity of the challenges in this neighbourhood we have concentrated on lobbying, building social dialogue and entering into partnerships. With employers, public authorities and the local community, because this is how we can increase awareness of child labour and develop a realistic approach to eradicate child labour step by step.”

No longer ignored

Korevaar points to the fact that Bangladesh – just like the rest of the world – has been through economically difficult times since the outbreak of corona. Even before that, the country was not in a strong position, but both the textile and the leather industries, which are of crucial importance for the country, have been extremely hard hit. This economic malaise, plus the fact that the schools were closed for long periods at a time, have also led to a substantial increase in the number of child labourers. “But despite all this, BLF has managed to establish a presence, and can now no longer be ignored. We have invested considerable efforts into achieving this. We now see that local leaders are growing in their role, with the result that BLF no longer bears the main burden. Trade unions and concerned stakeholders are now much more successful in working to achieve a safer future for these children.”




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