Date: Fri, 19 Feb 1999 18:46:05 -0600 (CST)
Organization: Interdoc-Asialink
Subject: Child Labor: Typical Capitalist Priorities in the 3rd World
Article: 55410
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Rescue Packages: risks to kids not just from child factories

By Jeremy Seabrook, Third World Network Features, 19 February 1999

It is one thing for Western groups to cry shame on child factory labour in the Third World. But when the children are exposed to even greater risks, there are no voices in the West raised against whatever their fate may be.

Dhaka: The ‘rescue’ of tens of thousands of children from the garment factories of Dhaka in Bangladesh, under threat of the so-called Harkin Bill in the United States, is supposed to have delivered them from degrading labour.

Whether the United States was more concerned with foreign competition from child labour to its own garments industry, or whether it was expressing an altruistic devotion to the welfare of children in a distant country, may be open to question.

Certainly, the fate of many former juvenile garment workers in Bangladesh suggests that the philanthropic impulse of the US at the time did not extend beyond the factory gates out of which the children were ushered in 1995.

Rehna Begum, worker and trade union organiser of 20 years experience in the factories, has a clear view.

She says: ‘You think it is better for children of 10 or 12 to be on the streets than in the factories? The streets are also schools. There, they will be given instruction on how to become mastaans and goondas (that is, criminals and thugs), or prostitutes. At best, they will go into domestic service. There, they are completely at the mercy of their employers. They may be abused, exploited, where no one can see them. In the factory, at least, we can see what becomes of them. In any case, they are only helping to feed their family.’

Schools were to have been set up, with limited financial compensation for the children whose labour was displaced. Most of these schools are not functioning, and many children received little or no payment to make up for their loss of livelihood.

’In Dhaka,’ says Farida, a social worker, ‘there are three options for poor young girls. All are connected with clothing. They can make clothing for other people in the garment factories, they can wash clothing for other people as domestic servants, or they can take off their own clothing for other people in the sex industry of Nayanganj. This is what the freedom of the market means to them.’

Much evidence suggests that the benevolent intent of emptying the factories of children may have laid them open to even worse abuse and exploitation.

Many boys are working in small vehicle repair shops. Others have become helpers on Tempo-taxis, clinging by their toes to the back of the vehicle and collecting fares for the driver.

Small boys are preferred, because they can stand up inside the vehicle and they leave more room for passengers. Some children have even become cycle-rickshaw drivers. A boy of about 13, pedals with all his strength, wearing out his thin muscles even before they are fully developed. At the traffic lights, girls and boys sell garlands and bouquets of flowers: the lead particles and fumes swirl about them, a perpetual human-made fog.

In a rich house, a maidservant of 12 is raped by her employer; another is tortured by the mistress of the house. Few will believe the word of a servant against that of the factory owner, into whose private service many former child garment workers have gone.

In any case, not all children have ceased to be employed in the industry. At one factory I visited in Dhaka, I was just in time to see a number of children herded into the bathroom before I was shown around the premises.

Many children have now become surrogate parents for the younger ones, while their mothers go to the factory; girls of 12, 13 must fetch water, prepare and cook meals on the little stove on the threshold, guard the hut where they live, keep the babies clean and watch them while their mothers do their 12 or 14 hours in the factory.

Those children left to take their chances on the street soon learn that these are certainly not less dangerous than the factories.

Akash is 12. He is very thin, with a dark face. He wears a red shirt and black trousers. He has the large hands and feet of those who have for generations planted rice, and been rooted in the rich earth of Bengal.

He is self-possessed, with an attractive but mechanical smile. Akash is a sex worker, and has been one since he was eight. He was, he says, initiated by a ‘guru’, an older man who picked him up on the street and taught him how to do sex.

Akash also works in a clothing store, where he is paid 100 taka (US$2.20) a week, which works out at less than five cents an hour. In the evenings and on Saturdays, he sells sex in the cinemas. In the stalls, it is mostly masturbation and sucking, but in the toilets, he is regularly penetrated.

Akash has one older brother and two sisters. His father is a ’baby-taxi’ driver, that is, he drives a three-wheel autorickshaw. Akash says that when he first started sex, he used to be paid only 10 or 20 taka (25-50 cents) a time.

Now, he can earn up to 500 taka a day on the streets or in cinema theatres. His family knows nothing of what he does. ‘They would kill me,’ he says, ‘if they knew.’ Akash has never been to school. He says he enjoys sex. It is not known whether he is HIV- positive.

Much is made of foreign paedophiles travelling to Asia to abuse children. The children now wandering the gaseous canyons of Dhaka's streets are prey to purely local abusers. The benevolent terminators of child factory employment have no small responsibility for their predicament.

It is one thing to cry shame on factory labour, in order to relieve the purchasers of international clothing logos of the burden of knowing they had supported child labour; but when they are exposed to even greater risks, there are no voices in the West raised against whatever their fate may be. No connection is made between the wraiths denied even the paltry wage the factory owners pay, and the despair which turns them to even greater violence and degradation.

If adults are paid wages below subsistence level, it is inevitable that children will be needed to augment family income. This is not a question of unloving parents setting their children to work, it is about the collective survival of families.

When experienced adult machinists in the Bangladeshi garments industry are paid 1,200-1,500 taka ($30-40) a month, it is inescapable that children will be compelled to provide the extra money required to feed the family even at the lowest nutritional status.

There are 4,600 factories serving the garment export industry in Dhaka. Around three-quarters of a million (mainly) young women have transformed this city of male migrants.

In the mornings, a touching procession of women in bright salwar kamiz kick up the dust on the edge of the roads, before being absorbed into the five- and six-storey purpose-built factories, where they sit in long lines at machines, each one performing a single repetitive task in the making up of a shirt, a pair of trousers.

They work in unison, at a rhythm that allows for no slackening of the pace, no leisure, no rest. Half an hour, perhaps three- quarters of an hour at midday, then tiffin provided by management after 8 in the evening. It is from this that the children have been delivered; that they may now encounter worse is almost unimaginable to those whose campaigns have emancipated them.

The Association for the Realisation of Basic Needs in Dhaka has helped the organisation of the women of many slum communities into saving and loans groups.

They have invested in vegetable-vending, cake-making, clothes- selling. Some have bought a cycle rickshaw which they—in place of the big-time owners of 100 or more vehicles—now rent out to their husbands at 50 taka a day.

This has ensured higher earnings for the women, and relieved many children of the burden of work. Their children can now attend schools run by ARBAN. For 2,000 or 3,000 families, the cycle of poverty has been, if not broken, at least interrupted long enough to permit the children to equip themselves with possible future skills.

However, with garments currently earning 70% of Bangladesh's foreign exchange (followed by shrimps and then by the tanning and processing of hides), it is far from certain that their long-term future will be more benign than that of their parents.

But at least within Bangladesh now, there is a growing awareness that the world market is not going to redeem the lives of its victims; an insight not always granted to those foreign humanitarians who think that to evict the children from the factories is enough; even though this may lead to loss of livelihood, and hence, even to loss of life itself.