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19 March 1999

Even the babies are put to work

Britain's empire allowed it to abolish child labour at home; Bangladesh has no such option

By Jeremy Seabrook

On the western edge of Dhaka, Bangladesh, on a ridge constructed to prevent flooding, the landscape is covered by dust from the bricks, and the air is full of the music of hammers on stone anvils. Women and children sit among the rubble, sometimes protected from the sun by a broken black umbrella. A child of perhaps four, entirely naked, skin discoloured by dust, wields a tiny hammer in imitation of his mother: they are among the thousands employed in breaking bricks for the foundations of buildings.

In Britain, domestic labour was superseded by the factory system, in which the employment of children was widespread. Parish orphans were sent to the mills and factories of the North, to whom they were delivered from the age of seven until they were 21. Many lived in prentice-houses adjacent to the mills; very much after the fashion of garment-factories in South Asia, where young women and men sleep, eat and work in the same building. Working hours in 1815 were from 5am to 8pm, with half an hour at 7am for breakfast, and half an hour at noon for dinner.

Minara started work at the age of eight in Sincere Garments in Dhaka, cutting threads, assisting the operatives. She sat under the Juki machine, and earned 100 taka a month (US$2). The working hours, nominally 8am to 5pm, were often extended to 9pm. Minara is now 16, still working in a garment factory, which has failed to pay any wages for three months. She was married a year ago. Child worker, child bride.

The first statute limiting the hours of labour of apprentices in Britain to 12 per day was declared by mill-owners to be “prejudicial to the cotton trade” and “impracticable”. To take even an hour or two from the working day for instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic would “amount to a surrender of all the profits of the establishment”.

Echoes of these humane sentiments are heard today from those who argue that the “creation of wealth” must not be harmed by concerns about human welfare. Our tenderness for third world workers, adults or children, is somewhat suspect; for we see practices in the South that recall lapsed memories of arguments that have been rehearsed in Britain for two centuries.

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When it was suggested in the first Factory Act of 1802 that visitors should be engaged to supervise the implementation of the simple reforms proposed for the well-being of children, the masters declared: “The mills or factories will become a scene either of idleness and disorder, or of open rebellion; or the masters, harassed and tired out by the incessant complaints of their apprentices, and the perpetual interference of the visitors, will be obliged to give up their works; and some of them may become bankrupts, or be obliged to remove to a foreign country, leaving their apprentices a grievous load upon the parish where they are employed.”

Prophetic words. In the places to which they have now finally removed, notably Bangladesh, groups of supervisors were appointed, following the so-called Harkin Bill in the US, to ensure that under-age children are not employed in the factories. This bill in 1996 threatened to ban all imports of garments from Bangladesh as long as children were employed in the factories. The International Labour Organisation, Unicef, the Garment Exporters’ Association, the government and the US embassy were to oversee the removal of child labour from the factories. In compensation, schools were to be set up, with small payments to the children.

As a result, the numbers of children in factories have been much reduced. A minority attended the schools that were opened up; still fewer received the promised income. The fate of the majority – which anecdotal evidence suggests may be far worse than factory labour – is of concern to no one: prostitution, begging, small workshops and domestic service escape even the modest protection that the factory workplace provided.

Shirin Akhter, chair of the project monitoring the elimination of child labour in the garment factories in Dhaka, recognises that “social clauses” inserted by western humanitarians into trade agreements easily become anti-social clauses: if the children finish up in even greater degradation than factory labour, it is difficult to interpret such clauses as anything but covert protectionism.

In Britain, as in Bangladesh, economic pressure ensured parents overcame their reluctance to allow their children to enter the factories. As the income of Lancashire handloom weavers declined, parents could make a living only by employing their own children – a practice common all over the subcontinent today. Robert Owen stated that many children were employed under the age of six; in one instance, he had heard of a three-year-old baby working. Infants in the factories picked up waste cotton from the floor, which meant they had to crawl under the machines; so the smaller they were, the better. Three-quarters of the children in mills were “piecers”, joining threads that had broken in spinning machines.

In Dhaka, the children in garments factories are working at similar tasks: sweeping up waste and cutting threads on the floor beneath the machines at which their older sisters work.

The sulphurous landscapes evoked by Engels in 1844 in which children work and perish are replicated at the end of the 20th century. In the brickfields of Dhaka, the brick kilns are marked by metal chimneys, silver in the sunlight, sending their black and grey streaks of smoke in parallel furrows across the afternoon sky. The kilns are maintained at a very high temperature: small apertures with glowing incandescent coals are watched by the fire-masters, who must maintain the temperature to keep up the production of bricks.

The workers live in roughly made brick shelters on top of the ovens: hovels containing bedrolls, scanty changes of clothing, tin boxes belonging to seasonal migrants. The work is a dry-season activity, for rain makes work impossible. From October to April, they work the hours of daylight, without rest, without holiday. Few workers are over 40.

A domestic worker of 13, pregnant with her employer’s child, conceals the pregnancy and buries the stillborn baby; a 13-year-old boy, driving a rickshaw in place of his father who is drunk, is hit by a car and loses a hand and a foot; a girl of 13 is “befriended” by a teacher, who abducts and sells her to a brothel-keeper in Calcutta. “At least in the factories,” says Jehanara Begum, a trade union worker, “the workers can keep an eye on the child.”

Arif is 15. His father and sister are both dead, and he was brought to Dhaka at the age of 12 by his maternal uncle, leaving his mother to work in the fields of a local landowner. He began work as a domestic servant in the house of a garment manufacturer. He was sexually abused by this man, and not only by him.

When his wife goes away, the manufacturer brings his friends to enjoy his servant. After two years of domestic labour and sexual abuse, Arif is now employed in the factory as well, eight hours a day for 1,200 taka a month (US$24). He still fulfils his domestic duties, and is also sexually abused by older workers in the factory. He has now learnt to work in Ramna Park after dark, where he makes a few hundred taka a week more. He is small for his age. No one stops him, except to bargain over sex. No one has ever asked him if he is looked after, whether he has a family, what he is doing here, much less whether he has been educated, protected, loved.

There is nothing in our own history that does not prefigure even the most abominable abuses of the contemporary third world: only changes in technology, different climates and other cultures obscure the echoes and continuities.

The majority of children working in the South today are performing the kind of labour common here at the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries, on farms and fields. Anwar, the oldest of nine children, never went to school. His family have no land. From the age of eight he was working, cutting rice, learning to transplant the tender plants; and he was employed collecting fares for the boatman who ferried passengers across the river. Eventually, burdened with debt, the family came to Dhaka, and Anwar worked driving a cycle-rickshaw.

The testimonies that have survived from 19th-century Britain are surprisingly similar: “I’d very little schooling . . . Many and many a pail of water I’ve carried up the hill for a penny, aye, even a halfpenny.” “I worked in the meadow for threepence a day, spreading the manure and picking stones . . . I minded the sheep and got threepence or fourpence a day for it.” “I used to go cow-minding or bird-scaring at threepence a day or 1/6d a week.” “I worked as a plough-boy with my mother’s boots tied to my feet with string. My first engagement was with a farmer who, in return for my labour, gave me free food and no wages.” “Many families had to go into debt, trusting to extra pay in harvest and the gleanings of the family to enable them to pay the shoemaker.” “For years, I never knew the colour of money. I worked in the flour mill, and I was allowed a certain amount of flour each month in lieu of wages.” “I was the oldest of seven children, and when I was old enough, I crept into the wood by the light of the moon, and once brought out five pheasants to keep my parents and brothers and sisters from starving. The farmer was a jackal of a landlord.” All these examples come from a book published in 1904, based on oral memories of the 1840s.

More than 150 years later, many children in Dhaka also receive no wages. Ansar, 10, and Nurislam, 11, are in a small workshop festooned with cobwebs, stained with oil, where they repair “baby-taxis” (that is, the two-stroke Bajaj scooter-taxis imported from India). Ansar’s father is dead, and his mother collects fragments of material from a jute factory which are resold. Nurislam’s mother is a domestic servant and his father a rickshaw driver. Both children are “apprentices”, learning to become mechanics. Both have oily hands and faces; neither has yet been paid any money. Many children are informal “apprentices”; they may work for up to four years, and even then receive only a nominal sum for their labour.

The ingenuity of children leads them to seek out any opportunity to find work in the city economy. In the suburb of Sutrapur, there is a slight gradient in the road of this otherwise flat city. The cycle-rickshaw drivers usually dismount to push the rickshaw up the hill. Scores of boys work here, helping to shove the vehicle up the slope. A couple of ragged, barefoot boys push with all their strength. Rayhan is nine and, working with his brother, they make 60 taka a day (a little more than a dollar). Rayhan is a small, thin child; it is impossible to measure the effort that goes into his Sisyphean labour. Shahabudin is 13. His father is blind and does not work. They migrated from India “long ago”. They live about eight kilometres from here and the daily bus fare of 10 taka reduces his earnings to 20 taka a day (40 US cents).

The west is now remaking the world in its own image, and promising that social improvement can come only if all countries follow the arduous path we have travelled. The gradual improvements in the lives of child workers in Britain was, to a considerable extent, derived from the imperial project in countries such as India and Bangladesh, much of the wealth of which was filtered through Dhaka and Calcutta.

We may speculate as to how far the progress of humanitarianism at home depended upon continuing plunder abroad. The wealth of empire no doubt provided some of the security on which people could afford to recognise the horrors of child labour.

When we insist on “social clauses” that will free the goods we import from the pain and disfigurement of the labour of the children of the South, it may well be asked, where are the exploitable lands, where is the extractable wealth, where is the empire on which they may grow rich, in order to free their children from the same degrading labour from which we so recently delivered our own young?