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Bureau of International Labor Affairs


I. Overview

According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics Labor Force Survey (1990), there are 5.7 million 10 to 14 year old children working in Bangladesh.1 Another estimate puts the number at 15 million.2 Nearly all the child labor in export industries is found in the garment industry. According to the Bangladesh Ministry of Labor, "children are found working in garments, bakeries and confectioneries, hotels and restaurants, transport, bidi (cigarette) factories, small engineering workshops, fish-processing, and other informal and unregulated sectors." There are also allegations of children catching and processing shrimp in Chittagong for export.3

II. Child Labor in Export Industries


The garment industry, including those enterprises producing accessories for finished garments, is without doubt the most significant industry in Bangladesh which utilizes child labor and exports to the United States. It is also a relatively young industry, established in 1977 and developed rapidly after 1983. In 1993, Bangladesh exported nearly $750 million in apparel to the United States.4 The garment industry's main products include shirts, trousers, jackets, T- shirts, shorts, and briefs.5 Garment workers make sports caps and sweat suits for export to the United States.6

Estimates vary on the total number of factories and workers in the garment industry. One estimate puts the figures at 1,500 factories and over 700,000 workers, of whom 75 to 90 percent are women.7 Representatives of the garment factories located in and around Dhaka frequently cite the figure of 1,800 factories registered with the BGMEA, with 1,000 actively producing garments, of which approximately 300 lead in production. However, these figures do not include a growing sub-contracting sector, which frequently goes unnoticed and unregulated.8

Children ranging in ages from eight to fourteen work in the garment industry.9 It is reported that most of the children are girls with an average age of just over 13 years -- 10 percent of whom are already married.10 Reported figures on the incidence of child labor in the garment industry vary from source to source. On the one hand, Dr. Farida Akhtar, Executive Director of the Srama Bikesh Kendra, claims that one-fourth of the workers in the garment industry are children.11 On the other hand, in May 1994 the President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) stated that one percent of the total work force are children, numbering an estimated 8,000 - 10,000.12 A recent study by the Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) estimates that 25-30,000 children work in the industry, mostly in subcontracting industries.13 Still others maintain that child labor does not exist in the garment industry.14 Some estimates suggest that the number of child garment workers may be near 55,000.15 A June 1994 report of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions lists the percentage as ranging from 20 to 40 percent.16 Recent observations made during site visits by U.S. Departments of Labor and State officials suggests that anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of the work force are under age 14. In short, children are working in the garment industry, even though various observers differ as to the precise numbers.

As a result of international attention paid to child labor in the garment industry in the recent past, both the Government and the BGMEA have made efforts to encourage manufacturers to abide by the law which prohibits the employment of children under the age of 14. Fearing the imminent passage of the Child Labor Deterrence Act (otherwise known as the Harkin Bill), garment employers dismissed an estimated 50,000 children from the factories in the fall of 1993, approximately 75 percent of all children in the industry. No follow-up study has been undertaken to determine where the children went, but it is widely thought that most of them have found employment in other garment factories, in smaller, unregistered subcontracting garment workshops, or in other sectors. Observers estimate that approximately 75 percent of all child workers in the garment industry were dismissed following governmental and industry warnings. International organizations and NGOs pressured the industry to retain the remaining children in order to have an opportunity to establish "safety nets" for them.

In its written testimony to the U.S. Department of Labor's International Child Labor Hearing, the Embassy of Bangladesh noted operations are simple and technology is uncomplicated in the garment industry. Most of the work is performed by women. These women, in the absence of any guardian at home, bring along their children, particularly female ones, for security and day-care, to their places of work. U.S. Departments of Labor and State officials, AAFLI representatives, and other non-governmental organizations, however, have witnessed children on their way to work in the morning, without parents, carrying their tiffins (tin lunch boxes) and holding their time-cards. AAFLI's study found that very few children interviewed had an immediate family member (father, mother, brother, or sister) working in the same factory, but most had a friend or some distant relative who arranged for them to get the job.17

Garment factories are located in multi-storied buildings throughout Dhaka including Mirpur, Malibagh and Rampura districts (allegedly one of the worst areas), and the Free School District area. Working conditions in general in Bangladesh are far below western standards. On a par with other factory settings, garment factories are often dimly lit, with poor ventilation, and open for very long hours. However, some factories operate with good lighting and are not overly hot or crowded. The workers, mostly female, work without a break during their shift. Too often the factory doors are locked. Sometimes guards with keys stand by the locked gate; other times no one able to unlock the iron grating is near. Many times the locked gate is the only entrance or exit to a factory. The workers, including children, are frequently locked into their work place at the beginning of the morning shift and not let out until the end of the workday, and in some cases not until the next day. Overtime hours occur during peak periods in the production cycle when manufacturers are rushing to fulfill their export quotas. AAFLI's 1994 survey of garment factories found that, like adult workers, children typically work 10 to 14 hours a day, with a half-day off on Friday.18

Children generally are given the less skilled tasks; adults are normally found operating the sewing machines and cutting fabric. Children are confined to cutting and trimming loose threads from completed garments, serving as "helpers" to the sewing machine operators and ironers, as stockers, transporters of garments from one station to another, and finishers who pack the products.19

In contrast to some other industries in the Indian sub-continent, children in the garment industry are indeed paid, albeit very little and many times late. Each factory worker must carry an employment identification card which gives the person's name, hours worked per day, and the daily signature of a supervisor. It is only by presenting this card that an employee can receive his or her monthly wage. In some cases, the employer withholds issuance of the card for the first month or two of employment, and the child is not paid during this period. Interviews with child workers found that supervisors regularly punish misbehavior such as talking while working by docking a day's pay. Eventually the child will earn a wage. Children in some factories do not receive time cards, and often are unaware of their compulsory working hours, monthly salary, or hours of overtime work. Since there are no trade unions for the child workers, they have no bargaining power or recourse to a grievance system.

In its study of 143 garment factories in Bangladesh, the Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) reported the salary range is 300 to 500 taka per month (about $7.69-$12.82), except for the case of sewing machine operators or ironers who were reportedly paid 750-1,800 taka per month ($19.23-$46.15), and that the children are generally paid less than adults.20 In a recent visit to Bangladesh, a Department of Labor official spoke with children who reported receiving anywhere from 250 to 700 taka per month.21 Children also reported that, like adult workers, they are often paid two to four weeks late, and rarely paid extra for overtime.22 In some factories, the child workers are appointed as "apprentices" or "helpers" for months and are not issued identification/time cards even after completing their apprenticeship period.23 In some factories, the child workers are appointed as "apprentices" or "helpers" for months and are not issued identification/time cards even after completing their apprenticeship period.24 There is no paid leave for holidays, and salary is deducted if the child is absent, or for unproductive periods when the electricity in the factory temporarily goes out. Girls under 15 years of age are preferred in these factories, as they work for less, are more likely to be unmarried with no children or domestic responsibilities, and cause no labor problems.

III. Laws of Bangladesh

A. National Child Labor Laws

Bangladesh has some 25 special laws and ordinances to protect and improve the status of children. The current laws, however, present a confusing maze of conflicting provisions regulating child labor. Under existing law, the minimum age for employment may be variously interpreted as anywhere between 12 and 16. In 1993, the Government of Bangladesh created a National Labor Law Commission to revise and harmonize labor laws. The first draft of the recommendations, completed on March 31, 1994, proposes to eliminate the inconsistencies regarding the minimum age for employment by defining a child as "a person who has not completed his fourteenth year of age."25 The draft further provides that "no child shall be employed or permitted to work in any occupation or establishment."26 According to the Joint Secretary for Labor, these provisions, if enacted, would supersede and control all other labor laws related to children.27

Current laws include The Factories Act of 1965, which prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 in any factory.28 This law also stipulates that young workers (i.e. children and adolescents) are only allowed to work a maximum 5-hour day and only between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.29 The penalty for violation of this Act (Article 44(1)) is a fine up to 1,000 taka. The Employment of Children Act, 1938 (as amended in 1974) prohibits employment of children under 14 years in a factory.30 Other laws include the Shops and Establishments Act 1965 and the Children's Act 1974 and Children's Rules, 1976.

The government agency responsible for enforcing child labor laws, the Bangladesh Department of Labor and Inspectorate of Factories, lacks sufficient resources, staff and logistical support to adequately perform the task of monitoring child labor laws.31 The Government of Bangladesh also maintains that employers and factory owners/managers evade labor laws.32 It should be noted, however, that the government has instructed the garment industry not to use child labor. The Labor Ministry was unable to provide information to the Department of Labor official regarding inspections of garment factories or prosecutions or convictions of factory owners for violating the Factories Act or the Employment of Children Act.

B. Education Laws

Under Bangladesh law, children must attend school through the fifth grade.33 Primary education is free and compulsory, although not compulsory for girls in the rural areas. The implementation of compulsory education has fallen short in part because parents keep their children out of school, finding school accessories too expensive or preferring their children to be working for money or helping with household chores. The current government policy is to implement compulsory education in 50 percent of the country by 1995 and 100 percent by the year 2000.34

The 1994 report by the Asian-American Free Labor Institute, however, maintains that, despite this policy on compulsory education, there has not been much progress.35 The Government of Bangladesh contends that it does not have the resources.36 A UNICEF sponsored study on non-formal education and child labor in Bangladesh noted that parents find purchasing uniforms, books, and other supplies a significant burden, especially for poor families,37 and presumably a major disincentive for sending their children to school rather than to work.

C. International Conventions

Bangladesh is a party to ILO Convention No. 59 Concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment in Industry and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Bangladesh has not ratified ILO Convention No. 138 Concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment.38

IV. Programs and Efforts To Address Child Labor

In the past year or two, there has been significant action taken by the Government of Bangladesh, the BGMEA, international organizations, and NGOs to create solutions and alternatives for child workers. In its written testimony to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Government of Bangladesh listed official efforts either taken or planned for the future. Some of the efforts include a realization of the objectives of the Rights of the Child Convention (a National Program of Action for Children was launched on June 2, 1992); examination by the National Labor Law Commission on existing labor laws with the goal of updating and consolidating them into a "Labor Code,"; strictly enforcing child labor laws; continuing to publish notices containing the provisions of laws relating to child employment in daily newspapers and broadcasting prohibitory messages over TV and radio; and distributing posters prohibiting child labor.

The government is cooperating with international organizations such as UNICEF to develop non-formal educational and other support programs for working children. The government has reportedly also agreed to allow the ILO to conduct a national survey of child workers.

On July 4, 1994, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) announced that it would eliminate child labor from all garment factories by October 31, 1994.39 On May 5, 1994, Mr. Redwan Ahmed, president of the BGMEA, announced that in addition to setting up a hospital for garment workers, the BGMEA also planned to give informal education, professional training, and to provide health care facilities to the employees of the apparel sector by setting up seven clinic/hospitals and seven training center/schools in Dhaka and Chittagong.40

On many occasions both publicly and privately, the BGMEA has expressed its willingness to work with NGOs, international organizations and the government to establish programs for children. Although the BGMEA presumably has a vital interest in ensuring that the garment industry is free of child labor, as of this writing, only one of the above-mentioned programs or cooperative efforts proposed by the BGMEA recently have been implemented. At its July 4, 1994 news conference, the BGMEA inaugurated one small school/clinic for children in Dhaka. Other programs or cooperative efforts recently proposed by the BGMEA have not yet been implemented.

There has been tremendous public reaction in Bangladesh to the proposed Child Labor Deterrence Act,41 which, combined with serious concern for the welfare of the children, has resulted in the formation of a child labor coalition, consisting of representatives from international organizations, NGOs, labor unions, various government ministries, and representatives of the garment industry. The work is being spearheaded by UNICEF, which has researched and reviewed a number of private non-formal education programs for possible use in setting up schools for working children. In addition, numerous child welfare and education NGOs are active in the effort to provide assistance to working children.

1 This estimate does not include children working below 10 years of age. See International Child Labor Hearing, U.S. Department of Labor (April 12, 1994) (Statement of Dr. Abdul Momen)[hereinafter Testimony of Momen].

2 ICFTU/APRO Sub-Regional Seminars on Child Labor (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions/Asian and Pacific Regional Organization, October 1993) Chart 1 "Country Reports in a Nutshell."

3 In numerous discussions with a Department of Labor official on a May 1994 visit to Bangladesh, individuals from all sectors noted that children were most likely employed in the processing of frozen shrimp for export. Since the industry is located in outlying areas far from Dhaka, no eyewitness reports were available. One report provided to the Department of Labor notes that European shrimp buyers have observed children in the industry. A Report on Child Labor in Bangladesh (Asian-American Free Labor Institute, 1994) 4 [hereinafter 1994 AAFLI Report].

4 U.S. Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration, Office of Textiles and Apparel, Major Shippers Report: Textiles and Apparel (June 11, 1994).

5 Pilot Study on Child Labor in Dhaka (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions/Asian and Pacific Regional Organization (ICFTU/APRO), December 1992) 3 [hereinafter 1992 ICFTU/APRO Report].

6 Visit of Department of Labor Official to Dhaka, May 1994.

7 See M. Quddus, Entrepreneurship in the Apparel Export Industry of Bangladesh, (A paper presented at the Eastern Economic Association Conference, Boston, March 18-20, 1994) cited in Testimony of Momen.

8 Another study estimates the total work force in the garment industry at 600,000. See Hameeda Hossain, "The Child Factor in the Garment Trade," The Daily Star (Dhaka), January 16, 1993. The BGMEA estimates the work force at approximately 800,000 persons. Interview with Mr. Redwan Ahmed, President, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, by Department of Labor official (May 14, 1994). Based upon surveys of the garment industry, the Asian-American Free Labor Institute (AAFLI) reports that females constitute about 90 percent of all adult workers, and roughly 60 percent of all child workers. 1994 AAFLI Bangladesh Report at 9.

9 Determining precise ages of child workers in Bangladesh, as in many developing countries, is sometimes difficult. Children rarely if ever have a birth certificate, and many will lie about their age for fear of being dismissed.

10 Ghulam Kamal, Pratima Paul-Majumder, Khalilur Rahman, Economically Active Children in the Garment Industry in Bangladesh, (Dhaka: Associates for Community and Population Research, November 1993).

11 "Harkin Bill a Reflection of Protectionism," The Morning Sun (Dhaka), August 9, 1993.

12 Interview with Redwan Ahmed, President, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association and Member of Parliament, by Department of Labor official (May 14, 1994). This figure was supported by the Bangladesh Joint Secretary for Labor. Interview with Humayan Shamsul Kabir, Joint Secretary, Bangladesh Ministry of Labor, by Department of Labor official (May 17, 1994)[hereinafter Interview with Joint Secretary for Labor]. At the same time, the Joint Secretary for Export, Mr. Shoaib Ahmad, estimated the percentage of children in the garment industry at two to three percent. Interview with Mr. Shoaib Ahmad, Joint Secretary for Export, by Department of Labor official (May 16, 1994).

13 Letter from Asian-American Free Labor Institute to Ambassador David N. Merrill, U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh (July 30, 1994).

14 Interview with Mufleh R. Osmany, Foreign Secretary, Bangladesh Foreign Ministry, by Department of Labor official (May 14, 1994).

15 Testimony of Momen, citing "Unwanted Garment Workers,"The Daily Star (Dhaka), January 18, 1993, which puts the total number of child garment workers at 55,000. In 1993, UNICEF Representative Rolf Carriere was quoted as saying that Bangladesh's fast-growing garment industry employed some 50,000 children. "UNICEF Opposes Quick Abolition of Child Labor," Press Association Newsfile, May 18, 1993.

16 "ICFTU launches major campaign to fight child labor," ICFTU Dispatch, June 14th, 1994; (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions) Child Labor: The World's Best Kept Secret (June 1994) 5.

17 1994 AAFLI Bangladesh Report at 10.

18 Id at 9. A U.S. Department of Labor official confirmed this on a trip to Bangladesh after viewing numerous time cards stating that young girls worked from 7:30 or 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. at night. A Toronto Star article described children working in oppressively hot conditions, where the air was thick with cotton dust, there was constant clatter of machinery, and children were allowed only three-minute bathroom breaks. David Todd, "Factory 'slaves' beaten, tortured," The Toronto Star, July 5, 1992, p. A.

19 1994 AAFLI Bangladesh Report at 9.

20 Id.

21 Visit of Department of Labor official to Dhaka, May 1994.

22 1994 AAFLI Bangladesh Report at 9.

23 Id.

24 Id.

25 Id. at 3; Interview with Joint Secretary of Labor.

26 Id.

27 Interview with Joint Secretary for Labor.

28 International Child Labor Hearing, U.S. Department of Labor (April 12, 1994) (Statement of the Government of Bangladesh).

29 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in 1993, (U.S. Department of State, February 1994) 1331 [hereinafter Country Reports].

30 1992 ICFTU/APRO Report at 9.

31 Child Labor in Bangladesh: Views of the Government of Bangladesh (submitted to UNICEF, author not identified, August 1993) para 3.7 [on file].

32 Id. at para. 3.8.

33 Country Reports at 1331.

34 1992 ICFTU/APRO Report at 12.

35 1994 AAFLI Bangladesh Report at 3.

36 Country Reports at 1331.

37 Babar Sobhan, Non-Formal Primary Education and Child Labor: Opportunities and Obstacles (study conducted for UNICEF-Bangladesh, n.d.) 7 [on file].

38 Lists of Ratifications by Convention and by Country (as at December 1992) (Geneva: International Labor Office, 1993).

39 American Embassy-Dhaka, unclassified portion of telegram no. 4925, July 7, 1994.

40 BATEXPO Brochure '94, 4 [on file]. Ironically, in April 1994 the BGMEA stated for the record that "at the moment there is no child labor in our garment factories." "Bangladesh Garment Industry Denies Child Labor," Reuters, April 13, 1994.

41 If enacted, the Child Labor Deterrence Act, proposed by Senator Tom Harkin and Rep. George Brown, would ban the importation to the United States of products which are manufactured or mined in whole or in part by children. Since the Bangladesh garment industry is wholly export-oriented, the threat of a U.S. import ban had a significant impact in the country. Some of the articles describing the debate include: Sharier Khan, "Harkins Bill: BGMEA to open schools for working children," The Daily Star (Dhaka), June 24, 1994; "The Child Workers of Bangladesh: A Proposed US Bill Against Child Laborers, Making Life Even Tougher for Youngsters," The Toronto Star (Toronto), January 9, 1994; O.H. Kabir, "Harkin's Bill and American Students," The Daily Star (Dhaka), October 3, 1993; Nur Khan Liton, "Fair Deal for the Kids: Harkin's Law will do more harm than good to Bangladesh's Working Children," Dhaka Courier (Dhaka), September 10, 1993; Nur Khan Liton, The Harkin Bill and Our Reality (paper presented at the Coordinating Council of Human Rights in Bangladesh, September 5, 1993); "BGMEA Can Help Divert Adverse Effects of Harkin Bill",Daily Star (Dhaka), August 3, 1993; "Harkins Bill and the Garment Industry," Commerce and Industry, August 1993; "Unwanted Garment Workers," The Daily Star (Dhaka), January 18, 1993; Hameeda Hossain, "The Child Factor in the Garments Trade," The Daily Star (Dhaka), January 16, 1993; "Inhuman Approach to Restrict Child Labor," The Morning Sun (Dhaka), January 16, 1993; "Garment Industries Men Urged to Abide by Existing Labor laws," The Morning Star (Dhaka), January 1, 1993; "AAFLI BGMEA to solve problems of child labor," The Bangladesh Times (Dhaka), December 31, 1992; "BGMEA warns members of dire consequences of employing children," The Telegraph (Dhaka), December 31, 1992; "50,000 child laborers in garments factories may lose jobs," The Daily Star (Dhaka), December 31, 1992; Harkin Bill: Bangladesh Perspective, prepared by the Bangladesh Manobadhikkar Samonnoy Parishad-Dhaka (on file); Dr. Ali Riaz, The Political Economy of the Child Labor Deterrence Act 1993, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism-Dhaka (on file).