The ugly truth about the hours children work to make clothes for Western consumers

Support us and go ad-free

A new report from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) shows how children from Bangladeshi slums work 64 hours a week on average. And many of them work in clothing factories.

The shocking figures

Together with BRAC University, ODI undertook a survey of 2,700 slum households in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. And its report, Child labour and education – a survey of slum settlements in Dhaka, discovered that:

  • 15% of six-to-14-year-olds in the city’s slums were working full time rather than studying – mostly as a result of the economic pressures facing their families.
  • By age 14, almost half of these children were working.
  • Although national legislation sets 42 hours as the threshold for ‘hazardous work’ and defines 14 as the minimum working age, the average working week for under-14s in Dhaka’s slums was 64 hours.
  • Two thirds of young girls worked in the clothing sector.
  • Over a third of both boys and girls reported experiencing extreme fatigue.
  • Almost two thirds of the children who started working between the ages of six and ten couldn’t read a single Bengali word correctly.

One factory manager, who was aware that under-14s shouldn’t be working, said he didn’t consider employing under-age workers to be illegal.

The report recommended that the Bangladeshi government:

  • Raise the age of free and compulsory education from ten to 14 years old.
  • Increase overall financing for education.
  • Strengthen regulations and inspection procedures.
  • Impose greater fines on people employing under-age workers.

The cycle of poverty

The full report didn’t carry out a detailed review of individual garment factories. But it did note [pdf, p48] that the “sheer scale of child employment in the sector” made it “highly probable that children in Dhaka are involved in export production”. In other words, clothes made with child labour are almost certainly reaching consumers in Europe, the US, and beyond. So we could be condoning child labour whenever we buy new clothes.

According to report co-author Maria Quattri:

The children we spoke to wanted to be at school… But poverty was driving parents to find jobs for their children, even though they could see that it would jeopardise their long-term future.

Read on...

Support us and go ad-free

In other words, says co-author Kevin Watkins, child labour “transmits poverty across generations” and “traps children in a cycle of poverty”. This is because its cause is usually poverty, and its result is usually educational deprivation. And Watkins insists that the results of the investigation into child labour and its effects in Dhaka are:

a microcosm of a global problem that should be at the centre of the international agenda.

A dark reality in Bangladesh that’s nothing new

The BBC has previously called Bangladesh’s clothing industry a “dark underworld” of sweatshops with child labourers and few safety precautions. And in 2013, this world saw over 1,100 people die as a factory collapsed. It was one of the world’s worst industrial accidents.

But in 2014, The Guardian reported on how clothing factories in Bangladesh were still exploiting child labourers for products made for the UK. It described how workers as young as 13 were “kicked, slapped and hit with a used fabric roll as well as abused with physical threats and insults”.

And in November 2016, The Guardian explained how an independent survey of Bangladeshi garment factories looking at the progress since the 2013 disaster was far from impressed. Many factories supplying clothes to massive retail names had still failed to implement key renovations. And they’d failed to meet their own deadlines. The Worker Rights Consortium – one of the groups that compiled the report – insisted that the main reasons for insufficient progress were that retailers weren’t pushing factory owners enough to make improvements and weren’t giving them enough money to improve conditions.

The supply chain

In short, the sorry situation facing workers in Bangladesh continues today. And in large part, it’s because big retailers haven’t really committed to improving conditions. They know full well that increasing prices could reduce the number of Western consumers able to buy their products and, unless these customers demand change, they have little financial incentive to improve workers’ rights.

But what is perhaps most shocking is that there are many, many child labourers working in these conditions. They’re missing out on an education. They’re working an average of 64 hours a week. And by entering the world of work at such a young age, they are trapped inside a cycle of poverty.

This is how we get many of our clothes in the West.

Get Involved!

– Compare more ethical clothing shops with high street storesRead more about the impact consumers can have on exploitative retailers. And support the Clean Clothes Campaign.

– See previous Canary articles on child labour. See more on the ODI report here. And see The Guardian‘s interactive coverage of the human impact of the garment industry in Bangladesh.

– Sign the #Once petition to stop child labour. And learn more about child labour at: the International Labour OrganizationEnd Child Labor; and The Child Labor Coalition.

– See more international articles at The Canary Global, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Support us and go ad-free

We need your help to keep speaking the truth

Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.

Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.

We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.

In return, you get:

* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop

Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.

With your help we can continue:

* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do

We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?

The Canary Support us

Comments are closed