Child Labour

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Child Labour relates to the employment of children in any work for pay or profit, or without pay, in a family enterprise or organisation. Economic hardships of many families force most of their children to get involved in income generating activities. About one-tenth of global children population under 15 years of age work in various occupations, some of which are hazardous. Most of these children grow and live in absolute poverty and deprivation. They do not get opportunities to acquire education and skills to ensure a better life for themselves.

Child labour was first recognised as a social problem with the introduction of factories in the late 18th century in Great Britain. In the eastern and mid-western United States, child labour was acknowledged as a problem after the Civil War, and in the South, after 1910. In earlier days, children worked as apprentices in factories or as servants in families, but in factories their employment soon turned into virtual slavery. This was mitigated in Britain by acts of parliament enacted in 1802 and later years, in other places of industrialised Europe. Although most European nations enacted child labour laws by 1940, the urgency of production during World War II brought many children back into the labour market. In the United States, the Supreme Court declared Congressional child labour laws unconstitutional in 1918 and 1922. A constitutional amendment was passed in Congress in1924 but it was not approved by many states. The First Labour Standards Act of 1938 set a minimum age limit of 18 for occupations designated hazardous and 16 for general employment.

Child labour is not illegal in Bangladesh, although the law discourages employment of children below 14 years of age in factories in 2006. Children aged below 18 are forbidden to employment in life risk job. According to Government National Child Survey (2003), total 3.2 million Children aged 5-14 years work in Bangladesh. The violation of children rights and increase of abuse incidents have triggered off the concern over the child labour issue. A dense population, limited resources, and frequent natural calamities complicate the poverty situation in Bangladesh and children are the worst victims.

There is a number of laws and acts relating to the protection and welfare of children in Bangladesh. The Minimum Wages Ordinance (1961) provides for payment of minimum wages to all workers including juveniles and prohibits employers from paying juveniles (below 18 years) less than the minimum rates fixed by the Board set up under this ordinance. The Shops and Establishments Act (1965) prohibits employment of children below 12 years in shops and commercial establishments. The Act also regulates the working hours of persons below 18 years. The Factories Act (1965) prohibits employment of persons below 14 years in dangerous occupations and lays down regulations for a secure and healthy working condition for a child or adolescent.

The Act also provides for crèche facilities in a factory for female workers' children below 6 years. The Children's Act (1974) and Children's Rules (1976) protect children's interests during all kinds of legal processes. The Act provides for separate juvenile courts and forbids a joint trial of an adult and child offender even when an offence has been jointly committed. It lays down measures for the care and protection of destitute and neglected children. The Mines Act (1923) prohibits employment of a person below 15 years of age in any mine and regulates employment of youths between 15 and 17 years of age. The Employment of Children Act (1938) prohibits employment of children in certain occupations in railways and ports, and in selling goods on railway cars or buses or within the limits of any port. The Children (Pledging of Labour) Act (1933) declares void an agreement to pledge the labour of a child below 15 years.

The usual scenario in Bangladesh sees girl children engaged in activities within the inner 'female' spheres, whereas boys work in the outer 'male' spaces. This frequently results in high ratios of school dropout amongst girls. The potential labour power of children is a significant aspect for families as the survival of households depends on their ability to reproduce themselves. The perceived economic value attached to children greatly encourages people to raise large families. Expectations of assistance from children arise from the deep-rooted concept of sharing the burden amongst the adult members of the family. Early participation in income generating activities compels children to experience a first transition through different stages of their childhood; this transition is important in conceptualising children's productive life cycles.

While children are occupied in both organised and unorganised sectors, the kind of work they do depends largely on where they live. Although children in organised sectors are covered by protective legislation, those working in unorganised sectors are not as fortunate. Working conditions there are far from congenial.

Analysis of data generated in the 1991 census and of the trends in the subsequent years suggest that approximately 19% of the total child population (5-14 years) of Bangladesh work as child labour. The proportion is much higher in case of boys (22%) than in case of girls (16%). About 95% of the children are employed as child labour in informal sectors.About 35% of the child labour works in agriculture and 8% of them work in manufacturing. There is little variation in distribution of child labour by girls and boys in these two sectors. But gender distribution of child labour in transport and communication shows that the proportion of boys to total child labour in this sector is 3%, while that of girls to the same is only 0.1%. Average weekly working hours for child labour in Bangladesh is roughly half of those for adult workers. Slightly more than 20% households of Bangladesh have working children of age 5-14 years.The corresponding figure for urban households is 17% and for rural households, it is 23%. [Mir Shamsur Rahman]