Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Analysis

The dangerous lives of Dhaka’s child leather workers

Making leather is hard and dirty work, but should children in Bangladesh be banned from it?

A.K.M. Maksud
15 November 2021, 10.05am
Tannery work in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

Leather production is a global, billion-dollar industry and Bangladesh’s second most profitable export sector after ready-made garments. It also has a problem with child labour. As our report for the Child Labour Action Research Programme (CLARISSA) at the Institute of Development Studies shows, there is a startlingly high prevalence of the worst forms of child labour across the country’s entire leather supply chain. These forms are not always obvious, and without better understanding of where, why, and how they happen exploitation and abuse of children in this sector will continue in Bangladesh and around the globe.

The year 2021 has been declared the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, with the ultimate goal of ending child labour by 2025. In principle we support this drive, yet we must also be realistic about where we are. Faced with the reality of a worsening economic situation as a direct result of the global pandemic, the situation of many working children is getting worse, not better. New children have joined their ranks, and many have been forced into even more perilous work. For these reasons, our report argues that we must prioritise improving the conditions of those working in the worst forms of child labour over trying to end child labour in its entirety.

Global brands, the visible parts of their supply chains, and governments are usually the focus of any conversation on how to address child labour. Comparatively ignored are the thousands of small businesses which exist unregulated in the shadows of the leather economy. They deserve far more attention. One of our key findings is that while the formal production of branded leather goods in Bangladesh has become better regulated, the informal leather sector continues to use child labour at every stage. And while much of this production is sold in domestic and regional markets, some inevitably feeds into the formal, branded leather goods sector.

For these reasons, we are launching a campaign to call for a very strong focus on the millions of working children caught in hidden and invisible spaces, often within thousands of small businesses mostly in the informal, unregulated sector.

The leather business in the informal sector of Dhaka’s slums

These informal businesses are in slums and neighbouring areas around Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Most have less than 10 workers, including the children, and operate in a working space of less than 200 square feet (19 square metres). Our survey of eight slums in Dhaka found that 34.6% of all children living in slums are engaged in the worst forms of child labour as defined by the International Labour Organization, and well over half of those children are in some way linked with the global supply chain of leather and garment products.

While most of the children expressed sadness at not going to school and playing with their friends, many were proud to support their families.

Almost all these small businesses are either sub-contractors to large and medium industries or producers for local markets. To make their leather products they must perform many dangerous processes – including preserving raw hides, glue-making, tanning, dyeing, etc. – and our researchers found that children as young as seven take part in these tasks. Indeed, they were involved in nearly every process of the supply chain (96%) of the ‘hidden’ informal leather industry. This statement is based on observations of over 150 children working 12-to-14-hour days, six days a week.

The work that goes into these processes is varied, but all come with their hazards. From mixing chemicals and carrying heavy products to using different types of acid and operating heavy machinery, the children’s physical health is constantly put at risk by their work.

What do the children say?

Our researchers work with many of the children to create their life stories and share their experiences within Bangladesh’s leather sector. Many highlighted that one or both parents were unable to provide for the family, either because they simply weren’t present or because they were sick or disabled. Others cited their family’s debts to microcredit NGOs and informal money lenders for why they work. Yet, while most of the children expressed sadness at not going to school and playing with their friends, many were proud to support their families. Positive and negative drivers like these are complex and persistent, and it is their interaction that often leave children caught up in the worst forms of child labour.

Kutubuddin*, for example, is a 17-year-old boy living on the outskirts of Dhaka. Some years ago, he fell off the roof at his workplace whilst spreading out fish feed to dry. He suffered a head injury and since then experiences memory loss, fainting spells, and an inability to answer questions. He still works, now at a glove factory cutting and folding pieces from dawn till dusk for which he receives no fixed salary. His employer pays him a sporadic wage depending on his mood. The employer claims it is a kindness to employ a disabled boy. Kutubuddin’s mother is a street beggar, and his father is a rickshaw puller.

Kutubuddin and many other children reported the immediate dangers of working in these environments while also noting the broader impact, such as missing out on an education. Yet despite all of this the policy response should not be to simply to ban these types of work. That would only exacerbate their situations. Many children like Kutubuddin explained that they have no other choice – they need to provide for their families. Taking away the work, however dangerous or exploitative, would not resolve this.

The priority now has to be to improve the conditions for working children.

In the shadow of the pandemic, the leather sector is now facing huge difficulties and more children are ending up working in the sector than ever. Lockdowns caused the closure of most leather supply chain factories and workplaces for three months in 2020 and overall demand dropped, yet there was still pressure on factories to maintain production. To cut costs, factory managers laid off adult workers and hired children at lower wages to replace them. This pushed families into crisis. Their overall reduced income impacted their ability to buy food and pay rent, and many children faced the stark choice of undertake dangerous work or starve.

However, simplistic responses like shutting down informal businesses can, like it or not, expose children to even worse harm. Children only do this work because they have no other choice if they and their families are to eat. To take away their leather work would be to leave them and their families with even less income and less options, which would only force them to work in other sectors of the informal economy. That displaces the worst forms of child labour, solving nothing.

Harm reduction as the leitmotif of sustainable solutions

In the context of calls to ‘eliminate child labour in all its forms by 2025’ we risk diluting our effort in countries with a significant problem by not focusing on where the worst forms of child labour exist. To have the maximum impact in terms of reducing immediate harm to children, we must have a very strong focus on children in the worst forms of child labour, typically in small and medium enterprises, especially in the informal, unregulated sectors. Dealing with the unregulated informal sector is a far more complex challenge than engaging with a handful of large exporters, yet it is essential as the informal sector is where the most exploitative and dangerous forms of child labour are found. This is much harder than talking to governments and large companies, but it is where the most immediate change needs to happen. To do this we have to engage directly with these small businesses.

By listening to children and raising awareness with their employers there may be immediate, and low-cost actions that can be taken to reduce the risk to them, for example, creating a safer, healthier working environment. Progress can also be made by listening to the voices of the small business community to understand the best levers and biggest constraints for meaningful and tangible change.

* Kutubuddin is a pseudonym used to protect the child’s anonymity.

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