Dreams buried by waste: The boys who work at landfills

Many young people work in waste management, collecting and processing garbage for little pay while putting their health at risk

Gargee Tanushree PaulGargee Tanushree Paul
Published : 4 April 2023, 08:07 AM
Updated : 4 April 2023, 08:07 AM

About 10 years ago, Jahangir came to Dhaka with his mother, hoping for a better life. He dreamt of becoming a judge when he grew up. He started school and studied hard to achieve his goal. But poverty eventually shattered those aspirations. His family could not afford to give him two square meals a day or a comfortable, permanent place to live.

He stopped going to school after the fourth grade. Now his dreams are buried among the waste piles at the landfills where he has worked for nearly eight years to survive.

Jahangir works all day, from morning to evening, at the Khamarbari Waste Management Centre. He has put everything else aside to work and provide as good a life as possible for his family.

"The dreams of the poor are like tufts of cotton," Jahangir tells Hello. "They are slowly blown away by the wind."

Though child labour of this nature is illegal in Bangladesh, children can still be seen amid the piles of garbage. Those who work at the waste management centre take the risk of sorting through garbage which could contain contagious or otherwise hazardous materials from hospitals and other places. None of them receive any training on how to handle this waste in a safe manner. They do not receive any safety equipment either.

There are no assurances of a comfortable life for these children. Instead, the stench of garbage is everywhere, as is the risk of waste-borne disease.

When a worker falls ill, it is very difficult for them to manage food, let alone proper medical attention.

Abdul, another of the countless children who work at open landfills across the country, has a burning hunger in his stomach. Like them, he works in the hope of a happy life, but it remains far out of reach. None of these workers has proper rights, nor do they get the wages they deserve.

Hasan works at a waste dumping site in the capital's Kalabagan area. He wasn't able to continue his studies past the second grade and has been working as a waste collector for five years now. He goes door-to-door every day picking up garbage and unloading it at the dumping site. The Tk 300 to Tk 400 he earns daily can barely feed his family.

"It's very easy to get sick in this line of work," Hasan said. "But I don't even have the money to buy a good meal. How can I afford to see a doctor?"

Roughly 150,000 child labourers are engaged in highly hazardous jobs in Bangladesh, according to the World Bank. Working in waste management isn't considered one of these 'highly hazardous jobs'.

"Waste management workers always face health risks," says dermatologist Dr Anupam Pal of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Medical University. "They are prone to various long-term ailments, including bronchitis, stomach illness, and skin disease."

"Those working in this sector need regular health check-ups," he added.

Three types of child labourers are seen scrambling among the waste. One group of children collects garbage door-to-door around the city. A second group works in the dumping zone. The third scavenges sellable goods from the garbage bins.

Children should not be allowed to work in waste management and society should not sit back and let it happen, Dr Anupam Pal told Hello.

The garbage from Dhaka's two city corporations is dumped at landfills in the Amin Bazar area of Savar, right under the open sky. Many children dug through the waste, looking for anything they could use or sell. Rahmat is one of them. He and his elderly mother live on whatever he can earn from this work.

"Please write something that will allow us to leave this horrible place," he said.

Gargee Tanushree Paul | 14