Child Labour and Coronavirus in Bangladesh: How do we respond to the shattered livelihoods?
Mahmudul Hoque Moni[i]
Covid-19 pandemic has brought new realities and sufferings for urban working children in Bangladesh. Millions of lives and livelihoods are at stake, so are the country’s important achievements in the fight against child labour. No dreams, no aspirations – for many, ‘just hang in there’ has become the new normal.
The 2013 National Child Labour Survey[ii] estimates in Bangladesh at least 3.4 million children aged 5 to 17 are economically active and working, among which 1.8 million have been identified as child labourers. And another 1.3 million are engaged in the worst form of child labour[iii]. Many of these children have been subject to bonded labour, forced labour and slavery, especially in the urban areas. Several reports[iv] highlight the widespread issue of child labour in Dhaka – the most densely populated capital city[v] in the world. In addition to this, nearly 350,000 Rohingya children have been living in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar since the Burmese military’s ethnic cleansing operations in 2017.
Bangladesh detected its first cases of the novel coronavirus on the 8th March 2020 and went to a countrywide lockdown on the 25th March[vi]. The lockdown ceased formal and informal economic activities, halted the movements of people, closed educational and care facilities, and restricted support mechanisms for poor and vulnerable people.
Analyses[vii] from Save the Children and Unicef reveal that the current global pandemic will elevate the number of children living in household poverty by 86 million this year on top of the existing 682 million. World Economic Forum reports[viii] that this latest poverty forces millions of children to engage in hazardous labour in low-income developing economies.
The lockdown effects
This coronavirus crisis has severely affected the lives of working children in Bangladesh. Due to the global lockdown caused by the spread of the virus, all major buyers of fashion and garment products have cancelled their orders, leaving millions of young child-workers without pay or labour[ix]. In and around Dhaka, the garment industry is the single largest source of employment for children. Reports estimate that a significant portion of the 5 million formal garment industry workers are children and, 60% of working girls and 13% working boys living in poor slum settlements in Dhaka reported as employed in garment sector[x]. And, not surprisingly, a staggering number of children sell their labours in informal sub-contracting factories in this sector.
The leather industry – another big sector of employment[xi] of children in the capital – suffered the lockdown effects. During Ramadan followed by Eid-ul-fitre, the biggest festival of the country when usually sales peaks, the industry piled up a huge amount of unsold leather products[xii]. As a result, thousands of economically active children have become jobless, failed to secure their source of incomes, and embraced uncertain futures in Dhaka.
A huge number of children, especially girls, also work across the country. In Dhaka, about 33% of domestic help is offered by poor and hungry children[xiii]. Having social distancing rules with the absence of any formal insurance or agreement, the employers found it easy to sack these domestic helpers without any reward or pay.
Besides all these, thousands of boys used to work in various small enterprises including roadside workshops (repairs, welding, furniture making etc.), restaurants and stalls, small shops, saloons, bakeries, chemicals, waste picking, and transportation. The prolonged lockdown has seized their livelihood and left them unable to meet their basic needs.
Most of these poor working children had been offering financial support to themselves and many of their family members. Many of them could not simply afford to buy the minimum safety equipment for themselves. They were rather exposed to domestic violence, abuse, hunger and in danger of being infected by the deadly coronavirus. Many school-going working children could leave schools for good. The scenario has turned even worse for Rohingya refugee children[xiv].
Post-lockdown pandemic effects
Like many other around the world, the Government of Bangladesh have been in the same conundrum – ‘lives or livelihoods?’. Eventually, the Government has started to ease the lockdown measure at the end of May 2020[xv]. Following that working children must confront a few imminent challenges.
The obvious one is that millions of children will try to resume selling their labour as businesses start to reopen. The unending social distancing rules and the constant fear of virus infections may still make people spend most of their time at home. Hence, many businesses, especially restaurants, may not open any time soon. Due to economic turmoil many small businesses in the garment and leather industry have closed for good. Many household employers could avoid employing any domestic workers. This means that millions of poor households in the slum settlements started to fight for survival.
Children having no place to live are often called street children. Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies reported the number of street children in Bangladesh was 1.5 million in 2015 and may reach 1.56 million in 2024[xvi]. With the coronavirus crisis, it is reasonable to assume that this number has already crossed the estimated number for 2024. In the past, these street children usually lived by begging, hawking various items on the street (flowers, chocolates, water-bottles, newspapers etc.), and by selling one-time labour. Reports[xvii] say that the shutdown has exposed these children to a variety of vulnerabilities and made them more susceptible to crime. And we also need to count on the increasing number of children in the largest refugee camp in the world.
The new reality is – a hugely increased number of working children started to compete for a limited scope of labour. This competition – like a pandora’s box – may soon open several possible bad and unexpected things. Before that, these children may just try to hang in there for some time before they collapse. The questions are – who will ensure their welfare? How can we respond to this humanitarian crisis?
An opportunity to design a sustainable policy response
Studies[xviii] show that half of child labour in Bangladesh occurs in informal sector. Many of those labourers who had been working even in formal sectors have lost their jobs. The Government must attack the issue of child labour amid the pandemic from all possible sides. It has already declared interim financial support package for big industries including garment and leather[xix]. Protection measures[xx] including cash and food transfers are in place. NGOs, civil society organizations and individuals have extended their help towards the children-in-need. Yet, many children living in streets and slum settlements are left without adequate protection and care.
This pandemic allows the country an opportunity to address the issue of widespread child labour with redesigned policy interventions. The Government must collaborate with international agencies, non-government organizations, and civil society members to create a sustainable protection framework for ensuring the welfare of these children. Apart from providing immediate care and protection, they ought to create long-term cash and in-kind transfer mechanism that will allow these children to keep themselves away from the worst forms of child labour as well as to attend schools. At the same time, the legislations and regulatory institutions may stride to ensure the insurance and welfare of the young children working in both formal and informal sectors. Otherwise, if this huge number of children went unattended, the country will face a daunting blow on its development achievements.
[i] Mahmudul Hoque Moni is a doctoral research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. His doctoral research concerns social protection and child labour. He can be reached at email@example.com
MEET THE AUTHOR
Mahmudul Hoque Moni is a doctoral research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK. His PhD research concerns social protection and child labour. Being a civil servant, Moni is currently employed as Senior Assistant Secretary at the Ministry of Public Administration in Bangladesh. He previously obtained Master of Arts in Governance and Development from IDS in 2016. He is also a recognized photographer and documentary practitioner. To know more about him please visit: www.mhmoni.com