bill and child workers in Bangladesh garments
photographs. Saleha is scared. Many a time she
has hidden under tables, been locked up in the
toilet or been sent to the roof in the scorching
sun for two or three hours. It happens whenever
foreign buyers enter the factory. She knows
she is under-age, and doesn't want photographers
messing things up - she needs the job. The whole
industry has suddenly become sensitive. Owners
want their factories open. The workers want
their jobs. The special schools for former child
labourers want aid money.
No photographs. Neither
Saleha nor any of the other child workers I
have interviewed have ever heard of Senator
Tom Harkin. All they know is that pressure from
the US, which buys most of Bangladesh's garments,
has resulted in thousands of them losing their
jobs at a stroke.
According to a press release by the garment
employers in October 1994: '50,000 children
lost their jobs because of the Harkin Bill'.
A UNICEF worker confirms 'the jobs went overnight'.00
controversial bill, the 'Child Labour Deterrence
Act', had first been introduced in 1992. A senior
International Labour Organisation (ILO) official
has no doubt that the original bill was put
forward 'primarily to protect US trade interests'
- Tom Harkin is sponsored by a key US trade
union, and cheap imports from the Third World
were seen as undercutting American workers'
jobs. 'When we all objected to this aspect of
the Bill,' says the ILO official, 'which included
a lot of resistance in the US, the Bill was
amended, the trading aspect was toned down,
and it was given a humanitarian look.' It was
when it was reintroduced after these amendments
in 1993 that the Bill had its devastating impact
child workers themselves find it particularly
hard to interpret the US approach as one of
'humanitarian concern'. When asked why the buyers
have been exerting such pressure against child
labour, Moyna, a ten-year-old orphan who has
just lost her job, comments: 'They loathe us,
don't they? We are poor and not well educated,
so they simply despise us. That is why they
shut the factories down.'
job had supported her and her grandmother but
now they must both depend on relatives.
children have had no alternative but to seek
new kinds of work. When UNICEF and the ILO made
a series of follow-up visits they found that
the children displaced from the garment factories
were working at stone-crushing and street hustling
- more hazardous and exploitative activities
than their factory jobs.
is easier for the boys to get jobs again,' Moyna
complains, pointing to ex-garment boys who have
jobs in welding and bicycle factories. Girls
usually stay at home, doing household work and
looking after smaller children; many end up
getting married simply to ease money problems.
In the wake of the mass expulsion of child garment
workers it was plain that something had gone
very wrong. UNICEF and the ILO tried to pick
up the pieces. After two years of hard talking
with the garment employees they came up with
a Memorandum of Understanding. This guaranteed
that no more children under 14 would be hired,
that existing child workers would be received
into special schools set up by local voluntary
organisations and would receive a monthly stipend
to compensate them for the loss of their wages.
garment owners feel that, instead of doing a
deal, they should have called the US bluff and
containued employing young children. 'We export
150 million shirts a year to the US,' says one.
'The K-mart $12 shirt would have cost $24. Bill
Clinton would have lost his job.'
is tall for her age. Though in her factory there
are quite a few under-age children, in most
factories children that look small are no longer
taken. This is what Moyna and Ekram and the
other children repeatedly say: 'We didn't make
the size.' In a country where births are not
registered there is no way of accurately determining
a person's age. Children with good growth keep
their jobs. Children, who look smaller, perhaps
because they are malnourished, do not.
reliance on size rather than age means that
many children are still at work in the factories
- and many have no inclination to take up a
place in one of the special schools. Take Sabeena.
Her factory is colourful with tinsel when I
visit and many of the girls have glitter on
their faces. It is the Bangla New Year and Eid
all in one and they are celebrating. Sabeena
proudly shows me the machine she works on. She
is almost 14 and, likes Saleha, big for her
age. She has been working at a garment factory
ever since she finished Grade Five, about 18
months ago. Until then, schooling was, free.
There was no way her parents could pay for her
to go to school and, with her father being poorly,
Sabeena needed to work to keep the family going.
home 2200 taka ($52) a month (with overtime)
Sabeena, at 13, is now the main breadwinner
in the family. She is lucky to have work though
she would rather study. She laughs when I talk
of her going to school. She has mouths to feed,
and to give up her job for a 300-taka-per-month
stipend for going to school simply wouldn't
make sense. Besides, the special schools only
teach up to Grade Five. The better students,
who have studied that far, find they have neither
jobs nor seats in the school. So Sabeena's studies
begin at around 11 at night, with a paid private
tutor, usually by candlelight. At seven in the
morning she has to leave for work. Seven days
is a key concern even for those children who
have been received into the special schools.
At the school run by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement
Committee (BRAC) in Mirpur the children gather
round a worker doing the rounds. 'When do we
get paid, sir?' they keep asking.
the promises, not a single child that I have
interviewed has received the full pay they are
owed. In some cases field workers, eager to
improve their admission rates, have promised
considerably more than the stipulated 300 taka
($7) per month. In others, unfounded rumours
have created expectations that the schools cannot
Shahjahan was one of the lucky ones admitted
to a BRAC school. The 300 taka per month is
a small sum for him too, but he works in a tailoring
shop from nine till 11 in the morning and again
from two-thirty in the afternoon till ten at
night. He doesn't complain. Though the scheme
does not encourage it, he feels he is getting
the best of both worlds: free schooling, including
a stipend, as well as paid work and a potential
they like working in garment factories? The
children find this a strange question. They
earned money because of it, and it gave them
a certain status that non-working children did
not have. They put up with the long hours. The
exceptions remind me that it is children we
are talking about. 'I cried when they forced
me be do overtime on Thursday nights,' says
Moyna. 'That was when they showed Alif Laila
(Arabian Nights) on TV.'
workers are popular with factory owners. 'Ten-to
twelve-year-olds are the best,' says Farooq,
the manager of Sabeena's factory. 'They are
easier to control, not interested in men or
movies, and obedient.' He forgets to mention
that they are not unionised and that they agree
to work for 500 taka ($12) per month when the
minimum legal wage for a helper is 930 taka.
see Tom Harkin as a well-meaning soul with little
clue about the realities of garment workers'
lives. 'As a student, I too hailed the Bill,'
says Sohel, the production manager at Captex
Garments. 'I was happy that someone was fighting
for children's rights. But now that I work in
a factory and have to turn away these children
who need jobs, I see things differently. Sometimes
I take risks and, if a child is really in a
bad way, I let them work, but it is dangerous.'
notion that a garment employer might be helping
children by allowing them to work may seem very
strange to people in the West. But in a country
where the majority of people live in villages
where children work in the home and the fields
as part of growing up, there are no romantic
notions of childhood as an age of innocence.
Though children are cared for, childhood is
seen as a period for learning employable skills.
Children have always helped out with family
duties. When this evolves into a paid job in
the city neither children nor their families
see it as anything unusual. In poor families
it is simply understood that everyone has to
money that children earn is generally handed
over to parents, who run the household as best
as they can. Most parents want their children
to go to school. But they also feel that schooling
is a luxury they cannot afford. The garment
industry has increased the income of working-class
families in recent years and these have also
led to a change in attitudes. Many middle-class
homes now complain that it is difficult to get
domestic 'help' as working-class women and children
choose to work in garment factories rather than
choice- made on the grounds not just of better
economics, but of greater self-respect- is one
many children have lost because of the Harkin
The US is wielding power without responsibility.
A nation with a history of genocide and slavery,
and the reputation for being a bully in international
politics, suddenly proclaims itself a champion
of peoples' rights, but refuses to make concessions
over the rates it will pay. The dollar price
tags on the garments produced in some factories
suggest a vast profit being made at the US end.
The buyers claim that what they pay for the
garments is determined by 'market forces'. The
garment owners make the same claim with regard
to the condition of employment for their workers.
Both are simply justifying their own version
of exploitation- and to adjust to be replaced
by address child labour without addressing exploitation
is to treat the symptom, not the disease.
garment-industry experience has lead to an active
debate amongst development workers and child-right
activists. 'What we have done here in Bangladesh
is described as fantastic,' said a senior ILO
worker. 'I wonder how fantastic it really is.
How much difference will this two or three years
in school make to these children? In three years,
the helper could have been an operator, with
better pay and more savings. Even if the manufacturers
keep their word and give them back their jobs
at the end of their schooling, the memorandum
children will hardly be better off, while their
peers will have gotten on with their careers.
We have spent million of dollars on eight thousand
children. The money itself could have transformed
their lives. This is an experiment by the donors,
and the Bangladeshi children have to pay.'
children's names have been changed to protect
photo : Main Uddin / Drik
Indside photos : Shahidul Alam/ Drik