Bangladeshs ready-made garment sector appears to be a major employer of children

Bangladesh's ready-made garment sector appears to be a major employer of children

Child labour remains rife in slum settlements in Bangladesh, new research has found, with the ready-made garment sector said to account for two-thirds of female child labour.

The report 'Child labour and education: a survey of slum settlements in Dhaka' by the London-based Overseas Development Institute was based on a survey of 2,700 slum households in the capital Dhaka, and found that 15% of children aged 6-14 were out of school and engaged in full-time work.

Average working hours for these children were well beyond the 42-hour limit set by national legislation, with many working for an average of 64 hours a week. By the age of 14, almost half of children living in the slums of Dhaka were working.

With the ready-made garment sector appearing to be a major employer of children there is particular concern over the potential link between child labour and garment exports for top global brands in Europe, the US and elsewhere.

While the researchers did not carry out a detailed review of individual factories, they say the sheer scale of child employment in the sector – and the links between small-scale factories and large-scale exporters – make it highly probable that children in Dhaka are involved in export production.

"We do not state outright that named foreign brands can be linked to factories employing child labour. However, it stretches credibility to assume that the supply chains for these brands do not include significant employment of child labourers," the report says.

"First, with over 60% of working girls and 13% of working boys reporting employment in the garment industry, this is the single largest source of employment for children in our sample.

"And second, the operations of direct and indirect exporters, and formal and informal suppliers, are deeply integrated. Widespread sub-contracting renders it highly probable that children are producing clothing destined for international supply chains. The vast majority of these children will be working in factories that provide limited protection."

The authors also cite survey results published last year by New York University's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, which claimed there are thousands more factories in Bangladesh and almost a million more workers producing garments for export than have previously been acknowledged.

Bangladesh indirect sourcing exposing worker safety violations

The Center estimated 7,000 factories, employing around 5m workers, producing garments for export. Direct suppliers account for around half the sector's factories.

Indirect suppliers also play a critical role in the export supply chain, enabling direct suppliers to adjust to shifts in demand. Around half are formal sector operators that have registered with trade associations like the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Association (BGMEA). Around 1,000 of these factories produce for export through sub-contracting with direct exporters.

Informal factories are a sub-set of indirect suppliers, who rely heavily on sub-contracts with larger factories to fill their production lines.

Of the 479 factories surveyed by Stern School researchers in 2015, around one-third were informal sub-contractors. On average they employ around 55 workers, often focusing on a single specialised process, such as sewing, washing, dying or printing. Workers in informal factories are highly vulnerable, operating on thin margins with the monitoring of safety standards and labour rights is weak to non-existent.

While the Stern Center survey did not report on child labour, the survey teams did observe child labour in informal factories. While precise figures are impossible to establish, it is likely that many, if not a majority, of child workers enter the sector through informal enterprises before moving into the formal sector.

Informal factories are heavily engaged in export production. In 2015, 91% were producing wholly or partly for export, with most sub-contracting for producers supplying national and international markets.

All the sites surveyed in Child labour and education are close to both formal and informal factories, and one site, Mirpur, has one of the highest concentrations of registered factories in Bangladesh.

The report says foreign brands could do far more in terms of constructive solutions to the child labour problem.

"As well as requiring direct suppliers to provide more and better information on their sub-contractors, they could actively support efforts to comply with higher safety standards," it says. "While ultimate responsibility for strengthening the regulatory regime rests with the government of Bangladesh, brands could – and should – be creating incentives for firms to comply with child labour laws."

The research also shows how early exposure to work and withdrawal from education are harmful to children, and offers recommendations for coordinated, cross-sectoral policies to break the link between child labour, social disadvantage and restricted opportunities for education.

It says policies must be integrated to span the regulation of labour markets, education, child welfare and wider global strategies for poverty reduction. "What we found in Dhaka is a microcosm of a global problem that should be at the centre of the international agenda."