Tobacco industry robs Bangladesh child workers of childhood

Child labour in tobacco processing and bidi factories is banned in Bangladesh.

Suliman Niloybdnews24.com
Published : 30 Jan 2016, 05:47 AM
Updated : 30 Jan 2016, 05:47 AM

But a large number of children continue to be employed in these hazardous activities for a living. 

During a recent visit to the northern district of Lalmonirhat, children were found working in farms producing raw tobacco and bidi factories.

Altogether 75,000 workers are employed in 195 bidi factories of Bangladesh, according to a NBR survey cited by research group 'Pragya'.

Bidi is a type of cigarette, a cottage-industry product.

In Lalmonirhat alone, 21,000 workers work in nine bidi factories and almost 70 percent of these workers are children between 4 and 14.

In the neighbouring Rangpur district, half of the 40,000 workers in the district's 30 bidi factories are children between 4 and 12.

But many more children joined their families in working at farms cultivating raw tobacco or rolling bidis. No reliable data is available on these children offering 'family labour.'

The bdnews24.com correspondent found plenty of children engaged in tobacco farming.

“A son will obviously work with his father at the farm. What else will he do if the father goes for farming tobacco?

“And what else the father can do? Other crops do not yield money,” Md Shahin, a resident of Lalmonirhat’s Aditrmari Union, told bdnews24.com.

On Jan 16, this correspondent found hundreds of children working at an Akij Group-owned bidi factory in Lalmonirhat.

Its manager Abu Taher, however, claimed that there were no children working in the factory, which produces 9 to 9.5 million sticks of bidi every day.

But he said in addition with the registered workers, around 3,000 'unregistered workers' are engaged at the factory. “We often see a brother come along with a worker or children come with their parents to work.”

Taher, however, could not come up with statistics on how many of them were children.

The children working in this factory are not registered; their output are added to parents’, said Nurul Alam, one of the supervisors at the factory.

Factory authorities were found quick to remove the children after finding journalists in the premises. One Azizar Rahman, who was leading the process, repeatedly claimed that there were no child workers.

He, however, later admitted that the factory has a policy to recruit ‘helpers’ to meet production target.

Monirul Islam, a quality inspector at the factory, was also removing children.

Asked why, he replied: “Because, they are hampering their parents’ work.”

Islam claimed that these children do not work in the factory.

‘Sakibul’ works with his father in the factory. Both the father and son claimed that the second-grader works after school hours but another worker said that the boy is a full-timer.

Replying a query from this correspondent, Factory Manager Abu Taher claimed that there is no harm in children working in the tobacco industry; at least that’s what he found.

But experts disagree. “Tobacco dust is hazardous for children,” said Rangpur’s Acting Civil Surgeon Md Aminul Islam Sarker.

In 2013, the High Court issued a rule following a petition against employing children at an Akij Group-owned factory in Rangpur.

But the matter did not progress as attempts for a further hearing fell through, said the petitioner’s lawyer BM Elias.

The labour law prohibits anyone under 14 years for employment. It also defined the tobacco industry as ‘highly risky’ and bars anyone under 18 years to work.

A 2013 government circular also prohibited minors from employing in the industry.

A High Court verdict in 2011 said that no one under 12 years of age cannot be employed.

Meanwhile, the government says that child labour is decreasing in Bangladesh.

“It has come down due to our initiatives, but there are still child workers in some hazardous industries,” said law ministry’s Joint Secretary Khondaker Mostan Hossain.

He added that they will move against the tobacco industry if they receive specific complaints.