Abdul Aziz has been working at a dry fish processing unit – for the last three years – in Chattogram. Abdul's father sent the 14-year-old boy to work there as he had been struggling to earn an income to feed his ten family members. Aziz works at the fish processing unit – as bonded labour – nine months of a year, and the employer gives his salary to his father.
Another child, Sadia Akhter, 11, works at a dry fish processing establishment in Bakalia area of the port city. Her monthly Tk6,000-salary is also transferred directly to her parents.
Like Aziz and Sadia, around 150 school-age children work at the fish processing units. They work as bonded labourers, also known as debt slaves.
They said that they are forced to work there and do not get leave to go home. Additionally, the children cannot quit their jobs as the employers paid their parents advances.
Now the employers are subtracting the parents' debt from the childrens' salaries; and the children are required to work more than 10-12 hours per day.
Bakalia area has nearly 120 dry fish processing units. The employers believe that children are better-able than adults to climb and place fish on bamboo racks.
Liaquat Ali, one of the unit owners, said they hire children on both a permanent and seasonal basis. Both the permanent and seasonal workforces come from poor families.
Liaquat said he has been in the business for more than 20 years. He said, "We collect them from their poor relatives. We employ them for months or on a daily basis through agreements with their parents."
"Child labourers are better than adults. They are obedient and work faster."
The bigger picture
Bangladesh has 2,112 dry fish establishments where children form 15 percent of the total workforce, according to a joint pilot survey of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and International Labor Organisation (ILO) in 2010.
Of them, 53.3 percent children are 10 to 14 years old, nine percent are five to nine and 37.7 percent are between 15 to 17 years old.
Young Power in Social Action — a local non-governmental organization working on child labour in dry fish units — conducted a survey in Cox's Bazar in 2019. They found that 20 percent of the district's dry fish sector workers are children. The NGOs who are woking in the sector estimated, one lakh to 1.2 lakh children across the country are working at the dry fish processing units.
Bishojit Bhowmick, project coordinator of the non-governmental organization, said that as many as 72 percent of the child workers are girls, and 28 percent are boys.
The NGO official said, "Around 40 percent of children are enslaved for nine months because of their parents. Their parents contract with the dry fish establishment owners and take money, in advance, against the salaries of their children."
"The employers prefer to hire children as they can employ them at a minimal expense when compared to adults," he added.
Advocate Rafiqual Islam Khan, manager (program) of Integrated Community & Industrial Development Initiative in Bangladesh, said, "These children are exposed to harmful chemicals and smoke at the units.
Further, as they work without any protective or safety measures, they are more susceptive to skin diseases and asthma."
Apart from this, the children are denied the right to education and are at risk of trafficking and extreme exploitation.
What are the legal instruments to end child labour
The Bangladesh Government adopted a National Child Labor Elimination Policy in 2010 to make meaningful changes in the lives of the children – by removing them from all forms of child labour.
The country also formed the National Child Labor Welfare Council in 2014 to guide, coordinate and monitor the implementation of its National Plan of Action to eliminate child labor.
Additionally, the Children's Act 2013 and Labour Act 2006 prohibit child labour. The elimination of all forms of child labour by 2025 is one of the key targets of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Achieving universal primary education was also emphasized in the Millennium Development Goals.
Moreover, the country is committed to ending child labour – having signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the ILO Convention.
As per the Labor Act 2006, an employer will be fined Tk5,000 if he or she recruits a child, while the child's parents will be fined Tk1,000 for executing such an employment contract.
NGO official Rafiqual Islam Khan says the penalties should be steeper.
However, the 2018 Child Labor and Forced Labor Report of the US Department of Labor found, "Laws do not cover children working in the informal sector, and hazardous work prohibitions are not comprehensive. Moreover, the number of labor inspectors is insufficient for the size of Bangladesh's workforce, and fines are too low to deter child labor law violations."
Dr Md Rezaul Haque, member secretary of the National Child Labor Welfare Council and additional secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, agreed that they have a shortage of manpower.
"We have only 1,000 inspectors to monitor 80 lakh establishments and one to 1.50 lakh industries across the country. We are trying our best," he told The Business Standard.
Is child labor in the dry fish sector hazardous?
The government, in 2013, labelled 38 types of jobs – including shipbreaking, bidi and cigarette manufacturing plus vulcanising – hazardous for children. The dried fish sector is not on the list.
Advocate Rafiqual Islam Khan said as the dry fish processing is not on the list, they are advocating for its review.
The US Department of Labor labelled child labour in the dry fish sector not only hazardous but also the worst form of child labor.
Additional Secretary Dr Md Rezaul Haque said, "The list was made years ago. We will revise it."
He noted that child labor in the dry fish sector may be included on the revised list – considering the health hazards associated with it.
The government's response to child labour
According to the 2013 survey by the BBS, there were 1.7 million child labourers in the country. However, there is no recent data about how many children are currently in the labour force.
Bishojit said, "The government's measures to get children in school or remove them from numerous forms of labour are insufficient. Parents often opt to send their kids to work as there are no nearby schools."
Dr Rezaul Haque said the government is committed to eliminating child labour from 38 sectors marked as hazardous, by 2021. "As per the SDG goals, we are committed to eliminating all forms of child labor from all sectors," he said.
"Bangladesh has undertaken a project to remove children from hazardous employment. The project set a target to remove 1 lakh children from hazardous work and rehabilitate them in the 2018-2021 period," he added.
Dr Haque said a total of 204 cases over child labour law violations were filed in the 2018-19 fiscal year.
"We are publishing different advertisements to build mass awareness. More families are being included in the government's safety net programme so that they do not send their children to work," said the additional secretary, adding, "to discourage child labour, the government is also facilitating vocational and informal training for children."