Shamima, 15, Lisa, 16 and Faria, 18, stood huddled together outside the gates of Hashem Foods factory in Rupganj upazila of Narayanganj district.
The home minister had just entered the factory premises and the police were busy ensuring nothing unsightly greeted him.
The mar on this perfect picture of quick government action was perhaps the three young girls.
Where they victims of the fire?
"No," Shamima quickly replied. When asked for her name, she looked at her friends with a shy smile.
"We are just here to collect our wages. Can we go in?" she asked timidly.
When their names and ages were asked again, they responded.
Weren't they too young to be working?
"We need the money. My father and mother both work. My sister works too, but rent is high and living in this area is expensive," she said.
"Are they going to give us our money," Lisa interjected, looking anxiously towards the factory gates once again.
They contemplated going in together, but hesitated once more.
"We were in the first building, right next to the gate. We heard there was a fire and were asked to leave immediately," Lisa said.
Soon, Faria joined the conversation as well. "Our bonus from last Eid has not yet been paid. We are still owed some over time," she said.
The three then linked arms and began taking cautious steps towards the gates. They still seemed to be internally debating whether they were allowed to go in.
Whether they were allowed to ask for the dues they were entitled to.
At the same time Maria* came along with her mother. Maria was sporting a bruise on her eye. She claimed to have hurt herself when she jumped out of the second floor of the burning six-storey building and landed on top of a car parked outside.
"I was wearing my burqa when I saw the fire. I saw people burning. I ran towards an open shutter and jumped," she said.
Was the job worth it?
"I earn Tk5,300 a month, the same as those older than me. There is also a Tk300 bonus if you don't miss any work days," she said.
How old was she? At this question, her mother instantly intervened, waving a bunch of photocopied documents in the air.
"She is 21. This is her birth certificate," her mother Nurunahar* said.
When pointed out that she did not look 21, Nurunahar confessed and said her daughter was actually 14.
Why was she working then?
"Schools have been closed for two years now. Private tuition is expensive, so she wanted to do this job," her mother said.
"I also want a filling in my tooth," she added.
What did Maria think of her working conditions?
She didn't have much of an opinion. She had joined two months ago. Her target was to pack in 500 cartons a day. She began work at 8am and worked till 8pm.
Despite the 12-hour work day, four hours of which was over time, Maria did not mind her work. She said sometimes they would have to work on Fridays too, for which there was an overtime pay.
Unfortunately, she was yet to receive her arrears. Furthermore, she had no document – no pay slip, contract – nothing to prove that she was a worker at the factory.
"My supervisor will recognise me. He will confirm, I work here," she said.
"Won't he?" She immediately followed up. The afterthought had just hit her.
Now that the factory owners were behind prison, would their dues be cleared?
While Maria could not fully fathom what her work conditions should be, what laws applied to her and how she would get her dues, what she had in common with Shamima, Faria and a host of other workers in the factory is that they were all quite young.
Going by the police list of victims, calling the numbers next to the names of people who had once been alive and untouched by the flames of greed, a picture emerged of flagrant labour law violations.
"He was 11." "She was 12." Some of the parents of the victims told our reporters.
While those are clear cases of exploitation, the situation is trickier for those above 14. Between the ages of 14-18, a person is no longer defined as a child and is instead referred to as an adolescent.
Regardless, it is clear that a lot of young people have been brought into the workforce, opening up avenues of exploitation.
Warning bells, rung, rung again and yet ignored
According to sources and speaking to some of the victims and their family members, most of the children who worked at the factory had joined amid the pandemic.
A warning for just this scenario was rung by the International Labor Organisation (ILO) at the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.
In a press release in June last year, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said, "As the pandemic wreaks havoc on family incomes, without support, many could resort to child labour.
"Social protection is vital in times of crisis, as it provides assistance to those who are most vulnerable. Integrating child labour concerns across broader policies for education, social protection, justice, labour markets, and international human and labour rights makes a critical difference."
It further mentioned that Covid-19 could "result in a rise in poverty and therefore an increase in child labour as households use every available means to survive".
It cited studies which showed that even a one percentage point rise in poverty led to at least a 0.7 per cent increase in child labour in certain countries.
Tuomo Poutiainen, country director, ILO Bangladesh, at the time, said, "Up until the current crises hit, Bangladesh had been making great strides in reducing child labour."
Tomoo Hozumi, UNICEF Representative in Bangladesh, however, warned that the pandemic meant closure of schools and reduction of family income, which exposed "many children to the risk of child labour."
In a report titled "COVID-19 and child labour: A time of crisis, a time to act," the ILO surmised that evidence was mounting that child labour was rising as schools closed, with the added risk of parents no longer being able to afford education when schools would restart.
Many of the children waiting outside the factory in Narayanganj found themselves here because these warnings were not heeded to.
The ILO recommendations -- comprehensive social protection, easier access to credit for poor households, promotion of decent work for adults, measures to get children back into school, including the elimination of school fees, and more resources for labour inspections and law enforcement – were not heeded to either.
And now we are sat counting bodies burnt beyond recognition, reducing lives to tragic numbers.
A budget for banks, businesses; not our babies
Outside the factory in Narayanganj, a man, holding a picture of his daughter approaches.
He was one among many, holding onto passport size photos of their children, perhaps the only photographic reminder of what their kid once looked like.
He says his daughter, Taqi, had been missing since the fire broke.
"When I heard of the fire, we rushed here. I could see the building burn, but the main gate was locked," he said.
"They could have let me in. They could have just let me in. I could have helped," he said, his voice now charged with an outpouring of emotions, grief and anger mingling each syllable.
Asked why he was here, he said he had spent the night before at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, looking for his daughter.
Asked again why he was here, he once again pointed to the photo. He was looking for Taqi.
By then two more men had joined us, each carrying a picture of their daughter.
Asked what they wanted, one replied, "What can we want? Our world is destroyed. Can they give us back our daughter?"
The questions, like the official narrative sometimes, had reduced these children to mere bodies to recover.
In some quarters, the ordeal their parents were going through could easily be solved if only they could be "fairly compensated".
What was the price of life, then? A million? Two? Ten perhaps?
Once that was answered, perhaps a crackdown on child, or adolescent, labour could follow. A populist war cry to secure more votes.
The main question though remained: what will stop forcing our children from going into work and abandoning their childhood because that is what poverty means.
Social protections of course. An actual safety net to fall back on. For that, it's not a matter of if we can afford, but rather how we must be able to do so.
This year, Bangladesh expanded its social safety net programmes, increasing the budgetary allocation by 12.5 per cent.
Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal proudly earmarked Tk 1.1 trillion for social protections, which is 17.83% of the proposed Tk 6.04 trillion budget and 3.11% of the GDP.
This number, however, is not very high.
Fahmida Khatun, an executive director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, in an article mentioned that South Asian countries were seen to have allocated 4% of their GDP to safety programmes, while the number was 20% for European countries.
She also highlighted how even within this limited allocation for safety net programmes, many of the allocations under it were for other things.
For instance, she wrote, "A disaggregated analysis would indicate that about 31.3 percent of the new safety net budget allocation in FY 2021 is kept for interest payment on national savings certificates. But this should not be part of the SSNP, since national savings certificates are financial products."
Fahmida further added that 23.6 percent of the safety net budget would be used for interest subsidy for loans to cottage, micro, small and medium enterprises (CMSMEs) and interest subsidy to commercial banks together. Another 23.6% would be kept for refinance schemes for the low-income professionals, farmers, and marginalised businesses, and credit for self-employment ventures.
Finally, she honed in on the main point, addressing the fact that amid a pandemic 80% percent of the stimulus packages were loans from commercial banks at subsidised rates and the rest was fiscal and food support.
Despite all these, another issue to take note of, is most of the safety net programmes are geared towards elderly citizens, widows, deserted women or people with disabilities.
Nothing is earmarked specifically for the children.
If we fail to create conditions that encourage our children from not getting caught up in the vicious cycle of underage employment, they will continue to do so.
There is no other way. We cannot, in good conscience, force them to sit at home being unable to afford things they want only because we could not guarantee them the right to be children.