Hazardous Child Labour: The Dilemma of Child Security

by K.N.M. Hossainul Haque & Md. Saidul Huq


Twelve years old Taher was a transport worker. He was a tempo-helper of Farmgate - Newmarket route. According to co-workers, he was the jolliest of all the children working at that route. Making fun out of everything was his habit. But one day changed everything. Taher slipped from a moving tempo and instantly was overrun by a bus. Loosing both the legs, he is now physically handicapped. Gone are his laughter, joy and fun. Now lying silently in bed he gives a blank look all the time.

Taher's incident is not something isolated. Behind us, many other working children might be facing such unwanted consequences everyday. If child labourers are one of the most insecure groups among children, the situation of those engaged in hazardous sectors is worst of all.

Hazardous Child Labour: The Ugly Face

According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), there are about 6.1 million child labourers (aged 14 or below) engaged in more than 300 different economic activities. Most of them are employed in 27 sectors earmarked as 'hazardous' for children by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The nature of work, method of working, situation of workplace, working condition etc. of these sectors are all hazardous for both physical and mental security of children. The enormity of situation would be further clear by an example. Last year, authors of this write-up conducted a research on child labourers of transport sector of Dhaka city as part of their academic study. Ninety percent of the child labourers who participated in the survey of that research were found to be victims of one or more health complication.

What is the way out of this situation? The easiest and most available answer is banning of child labour. When we face a problem, generally we seek the apparently easy solution. That's why efforts are underway in both national and international level to ban child labour in the shortest possible time. But banning child labour alone would not ensure security of working children. It may temporarily increase their physical-mental security but will endanger their sole existence in the long run. But why this predicament? To know this we have to understand the dynamics of our society.

The Security Dilemma of Child Labour:

The predicament of a child labourer is rooted in his or her socio-economic reality. Child labourers predominantly come from lower and lower-middle class families of our society. These families are characterised by some or all of the following features: big families, absence of father, unsatisfactory (low) family income, unemployment of elder family member(s), social barrier restraining elder woman family members from employment, lack of interest in child education etc. Besides, many of the low income parents are former child labourers themselves who do not bother much with their children as labourers.

Thus the negative socio-economic condition lead the children of lower and lower-middle class families to child labour. Moreover, an early entry into labour market is worth not only instant income but also opportunity of internship in a particular trade that may pay-off in the long run. Once they are in the marketplace as labourers, rules of economics draw them into the hazardous sectors. Because the wage in hazardous sectors are more than the ones which are not hazardous.

Now let's see what happens if child labour is banned? When child labour is banned from a sector, it makes the children unemployed but does not put them out of child labour. As unemployment precipitate their poverty, they start hunting for jobs at once. Soon enough, they are re-engaged in child labour. This time may be in a more hazardous sector than the previous one. During our survey on child transport workers of Dhaka last year, we found that children sacked from garment factories are working as rickshaw-van helpers. If that is the result of banning child labour in one sector, banning child labour in all the sectors would make things worse. That would rather increase juvenile crime instead of doing any good.

We therefore see that the 'vicious circle' connecting poverty and child labour has been continuously creating security dilemma for child labourers. We have also found traditional approach to ensure security of child labourers has rather reinforced their security dilemma. But things cannot go on this way for ever. Change must come. If straight finger cannot get the cheese, bend the finger. As conventional means are failing, let us invent and discover the unseen.

The Way Out:

Our propositions for breaking the dilemma of child security are based on the following two assumptions:

i. Child labour, irrespective of its form, is not a problem singularly but an integral part of the process of our societal construction. Beginning as the result of other social problems, it later evolves as a social problem itself and eventually end up as a cause of other social problem(s). Any efforts of mitigating it, therefore, require a three-pronged strategy dealing not only with child labour but also with its causes and effects.
ii. Hazardous child labour is inter linked with overall child labour issue. Therefore, effort to deal with it should encompass non-hazardous child labour as well.

Keeping the above two points in mind, we suggest of bi-focal action for breaking-up security dilemma of children in hazardous labour. The 'strategic action' for eliminating hazardous child labour in the long run and the 'tactical action' for gradually reducing it in the short run.

Strategic Action

1. Solution of the issues of imbalance population, unemployment and poverty. Consequently, the economic situation of lower and lower-middle class families would sufficiently improve. This would revert the negative economic reality that produce child labourers.

2. Qualitative change in education system by integrating general and technical education. Both male and female children should be given technical training in one or more trade as part of their general education. Existing workshops and factories can be utilised for practical part of that training. This would revert the prevailing tendency of preferring working to schooling for children among low income parents.

3. Implementing the following legal reforms: an uniform & common legal definition of children and enunciating 'United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child' (UNCRC) in our law. This would vanish the legal loopholes that make child labour possible.

Tactical Action

1. Discouraging the amount of social resistance still existing against extra-house economic activity of women. So that, in time of emergency, elder female members of family instead of children can take up the economic responsibility of family.

2. Raising awareness among child labourers of hazards involved in respective sectors, giving practical training (both pre-job and in-job) on precautions to be taken and providing them with protective gears to save their body from accident and harmful exposure. These would increase security at workplace of child labourers.

3. Developing an integrated health care system for child labourers. The existing infrastructure of hospitals, clinics and health centres can be utilised for this purpose. The system would include health insurance, emergency health fund, health card, periodic health check-up, physical and psychological therapy etc. The fund for this system can be raised by joint contribution of child labourers, employers, parents, concerned NGOs and government agencies and any other person or quarter interested.

4. Developing an integrated system of education for child labourers. The existing infrastructure of formal and non-formal primary schools respectively run by the government and the NGOs can be utilised for this purpose. Necessary fund can be raised by joint contribution of the parties discussed earlier (see no. 3). The class schedule of child labourers should be in harmony with respective working hour and working day. Besides general subjects like language and math, they should also be taught food and nutrition, health and cleanliness, population, child rights, etiquette etc.

5. Increasing entertainment facilities for child labourers. Programmes like cultural functions and sports competitions can be arranged for child labours in this purpose. Government agencies like the Shishu Academy and private bodies like the NGOs, children organisations and cultural associations can implement them. This would enable the child labourers to escape from harsh reality of life for the time being and contribute in their mental development.

6. Ensuring safety of child labourers from torture and abuse. This can be successfully implemented by following initiatives:

- developing a countrywide network with a common mailing address and a common phone number through which child labourers can channel their complains to proper authority,
- appointing an official with expertise in child psychology in each police station to deal with problems of children including child labourers.
- introducing an integrated system of providing legal help by human rights and legal aid organisations.


Dust piled up over a long time cannot be totally removed in a single day. The phenomena of child labour that emerged over years cannot be altered in a short period. Particularly, if it is tied up with macro-problems like population explosion and poverty as in case of Bangladesh. But, had reality been the only criterion of action, there would have been no change in the world. We have to dare, dream, perceive, create and act. We believe that if the alternative way outlined in this write-up is pursued consistently and systematically, the security dilemma of children in hazardous labour will finally come to an end.

The authors are students of MSS (Final Year), Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka