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Why children work

It isn’t really a factory. The ‘finishing unit’, where garments are stacked in boxes ready for shipment to Britain and America, is in the lower story of an extensive private house enclosed by a high stone wall in the Mirpur district of Dhaka. The stairs are piled with cardboard containers, so it is almost impossible to reach the upstairs apartment.

Here, the last touches are put to ready-made apparel for export. The workshop is a plain, windowless room, about 12 or 15 metres square. There are 45 workers, a majority girls, about half of them under 14. A boy is at a machine sewing buttons. Girls stand at a table, trimming loose threads and checking that the buttons are firm and the zip-fasteners work smoothly. Others stand at old-fashioned domestic ironing boards, from which steam rises in little mushroom-clouds. At a trestle, each garment is carefully folded and then passed to a line of young women who seal it in transparent polythene. Other girls stack them in cardboard cartons. They handle each piece as though it were a tray of eggs. From here, all the material will go to shipping containers for delivery to GAP and Primark in Britain, to Wal-Mart and K-Mart in North America.

The youngest children are perhaps 10. A smiling boy of about 11, Asgar from Noakhali, staggers beneath a pile of children’s clothing. The river eroded his family’s land and his father, who once grew vegetables, now sells them on the streets of Mirpur. Asgar earns 1600 taka a month ($23) for a 12-hour day. He is with Shohal, a boy of 16 from Barisal, whose family also lost their land to the Meghna River. Shohal left school at eight and if he ever knew how to read and write, he has now forgotten. His father sells flowers, but his income is irregular. Shohal’s money – 1800 taka a month ($27) – pays the rent on their one room.

Most garment workers are girls, young women, the most precious import of Dhaka, with their sweet country submissiveness, plucked by unknown ‘aunties’ who appear from no-one knows where, promising them lives of prosperity. They are set to work, stitching, bent in long rows over Japanese Juki or Brother machines, turning out plaid quilting for Russian or Canadian winters, shirts for the clothing stores of Europe, jeans decorated with sequins for Japanese teenagers.

Lima is a slender 15 year old. The youngest of six sisters, her father died when she was five. Lima was brought to Dhaka two years ago and lives with the owner’s family, working partly as a domestic and partly in the factory. Her 12-hour day starts at eight in the morning. She earns 2000 taka a month ($30), and sends three-quarters of it to her mother. Lima can read, but her mother is unable to write to her. She has one day’s leave each week, but never goes out. She has seen nothing of Dhaka but the bare walls of the house and the workshop. She hopes one day to become ‘self-reliant’ – to buy land in the village. The cost is 8000 taka ($120) for one tenth of an acre. To be self-reliant would require six acres. It would take 13 years to buy one acre. Her hopes are poignant, her endurance of exile heroic, the likelihood of realizing her dreams remote. Still she goes about her work, meek and obedient; her trust absolute, both in the future and in the grace of a God who will not fail her.

They are set to work, stitching, bent in long rows over Japanese Juki or Brother machines, turning out plaid quilting for Russian or Canadian winters...

The garments which the children in the workshop trim and pack so tenderly create a strange impression: not only are the children a living embodiment of the ‘scandal’ of child labour, but the clothing they pack evokes the children in Britain and the US who will wear them. It is highly gender-specific – short layered skirts in a floral pattern with a low-cut top for little girls; combat fatigues in khaki and olive, and small denim jackets and jeans for boys. These items are for the lower end of the European and North American markets. The children of the poor in Bangladesh are making clothes for the children of the poor in the West. This makes explicit the relationship between poor people in the West and their impoverished peers in Bangladesh.

In the evening, when the factories close, for a brief moment a male-dominated Dhaka becomes a city of women – a procession of exhausted labour, some in bright saris or salwar kamiz, a few in full black burka. Lights blaze in the seven-story factories in the shadow of which they live. Beneath, the faint gleam of dim bulbs, kerosene stoves and cooking fires fed by pieces of waste fabric faintly illuminates the slum; an aerial city of tin constructed on bamboo poles driven into the wastewater of a polluted pond. If the rivers have eaten the land of Bangladesh, the city is consuming its people.

The owner of the Mirpur workshop is from Barisal, from where he recruited all his workers. They regard their employment, not as exploitation, but as good fortune. To find out why, I retraced the path taken by thousands of young migrants.

Buses and trucks share the roads with carts, cycles and pedestrians, women scarcely visible beneath a swaying burden of fodder and fuel. I pass an overturned truck, its cab crushed, wheels still spinning in the air; bodies are laid out on the green verge. There is a long wait at the crossing of the Padma River from Aricha to Dauladtia, a staging post from British times, a town now almost totally devoted to prostitution. The buses are packed with people carrying away the produce of the countryside – jute sacks of green coconuts, bamboo, betel, sugarcane, aubergines, tomatoes, metal cages of chickens and ducks; taking not only the riches of the land, but also their own youth and energy to be sold – always at a loss. Ragged men with rough hands and feet hardened by paddy fields sit on the roof of the bus, faces bronzed by the setting sun, a tableau of rural servitude. The girls sit inside with cardboard suitcases; their two or three years’ schooling has given them the ability to scratch their signature, tongue between their teeth, 14- and 15-year old child brides of industry, to be claimed by raw factories on sites that were until yesterday agricultural land.

Barisal, an old provincial town, is overwhelmed by refugees from ruined rural livelihood. It’s a chaotic settlement of stagnant ponds, choked with the coarse weeds, houses of tin and wood, ramshackle booths, concrete buildings reflected in the green water, single-story dwellings close to the crumbling architecture of the Raj. All over the city are stacks of tree trunks, savage harvest of the devastating cyclone Sidr of October 2007, which felled ancient raintrees, betel, palms and mango-orchards.

Barisal is a temporary halt on the road to Chittagong or Dhaka for people who have lost land, their only possession – land seized by the powerful, deeds of ownership falsified by corrupt officials, land subdivided into uneconomic parcels by inheritance. But the most fierce land dispute of all is the constant struggle between land and water. It isn’t only land that is wasted by restless rivers and tides; ways of life, culture and traditions are also washed away. Even the people appear eroded, thin and poorly nourished, emblems of a poverty which is the subject of numberless reports and inquiries stored away in monsoon-stained files and eaten by white ants. Development schemes have come and gone, but the poor remain, bony rickshaw-drivers, emaciated maidservants, children breaking bricks in desolate yards.

Seventy per cent of Bangladeshis have little or no land. Land is not only livelihood, but also life itself. People in the slums of Barisal tell of watching as whole villages were submerged by one of the 17 rivers that cross Barisal or by the insatiable mouths of the Ganges. The poor recount their sparse biography, a tale of bare tenements and hollow stomachs, unwilling departures into slums without security or stability; paddy-land eaten by the river, the homestead taken, the hut built on government land in town, eviction, rebuilding, the renewed removal by police. ‘There is only one greater thief than the river,’ they say, ‘and that is man.’

Early in 2009, the urban poor of Barisal were spending three-quarters of their income on food. Even official figures of the municipality estimate that 43 per cent of the people live ‘below subsistence’, while more than a quarter of adults consume less than 1850 calories a day. The ubiquitous smile of the poor should not be taken at face value: it conceals inexhaustible grief.

The ubiquitous smile of the poor should not be taken at face value: it conceals inexhaustible grief

Yet Barisal is where the fragrant balam rice was produced, which gave its name to ‘Golden Bengal’, the ripeness of the grain shimmering in the mellow harvest season; wiped out by high-yielding varieties that dispossessed small farmers who could not keep up with the appetite of miracle seeds for fertilizer and who have themselves been devoured by the food they cultivated. Many rivers, teeming with fish that provided cheap protein for the poor, have been poisoned by run-off from pesticides. This is where an eclectic mix of Sufism, Hinduism and Bengali folk culture joined in common celebration of the beauty and brevity of life; where scarlet hibiscus and spiky boughs of bougainvillea were offered to ancient deities whose serene presence remained undisturbed by the coming of an Allah, apparently more merciful then than now. Here, too, the handloom weavers worked their marvels of sheer fabric, the import of which was banned by Britain in the 18th century because it was superior to anything produced at the imperial centre. In the green shady canals freedom fighters came and went during the Liberation War of 1971; Pakistani soldiers perished as they pursued them through labyrinths of emerald water.

When you see where working children come from, the child labour of Dhaka appears in a different light. The abolitionists should be asked how families are to survive (including the children themselves) without their contribution to an income sufficient to nourish them. It is one thing for moralists to swoop upon ‘ruthless employers’, but unless they know what has driven children into factories, their outrage strikes ineffectually against reality. Who will guarantee a living wage to adults, to permit them to bring up their children in security, particularly where the only ‘competitive advantage’ of Bangladesh is its ill-paid and expendable workers? The Government of Bangladesh is currently offering subsidised rice to workers in the garment sector, so employers will not have to raise wages to subsistence levels.

Barisal drives its children away, ghost-farmers trapped between a perishing tradition and an unsustainable modernity. The hope of its inhabitants lies on the river steamer or the road to a more prosperous elsewhere. Barisal is an entrepôt where poverties are traded; a frontier, where the ability of human beings to procure food and shelter by their own labour on their own land, is finally lost. The tragedy is that this is perceived, not as a measureless privation, but as a chance to grow rich.

Jeremy Seabrook is a regular contributor to New Internationalist. Research for this piece was assisted by a small grant from Race and Class and support from the Network for Social Change.

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