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Child Labor Rules Don’t Ease Burden in Bangladesh

Times Staff Writer

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- Three years ago, when Salma was 11, she worked in a Dhaka factory from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week. She was a runner, trimming thread and shuttling bundles of sewn cloth. She made $9 a month.

Today, the soft-spoken teenager is learning to read and write. Her parents are unhappy that she isn’t bringing home wages, but they let her attend school because her teacher promised to help her find work soon that pays more than she earned at the factory.

“I hope to get a job making televisions,” said Salma, sitting on the floor of a tidy, one-room schoolhouse where she and her classmates, a swarm of colorful saris and T-shirts, attended to their math workbooks.

Salma’s climb from child laborer to dutiful student is a tribute to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Assn., which pledged eight years ago to remove children younger than 14 from factory floors.

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Under the association’s program, designed in 1995 at the urging of the United States, the apparel industry has all but wiped out child labor. What’s more, garment makers have sent nearly 10,000 children who once toiled in their factories to school, a considerable accomplishment in a country in which 35% don’t make it past primary grades.

But to many people here, the program doesn’t feel like much of a success.

Although the garment industry satisfied U.S. demands for reform, the United States is buying fewer clothes from Bangladesh, which depends on apparel exports for three-fourths of its vital foreign-exchange dollars.

What’s more, the Bush administration this year added the predominantly Muslim country to its list of 34 nations whose citizens must navigate a rigorous visa application process in a program aimed at combating terrorism. That makes it difficult for businesspeople to visit customers and attend trade shows in the United States, the second-biggest buyer of Bangladeshi apparel after the European Union.

Politicians and businesspeople in the South Asian nation are bewildered -- or suspect the worst: that the U.S. foreign policy establishment, focused on Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, simply has forgotten about them.

“On child labor, Bangladesh responded in a major way; it was not window dressing,” said Zulfiquar Rahman, managing director of Greenland Garments Ltd., which recently invested $1.4 million in a factory that produces clothing for several large European firms.

“In this case, we did get off our backsides and made things work, and I do not think it has been reciprocated.”

Farooq Sobhan, a former top Bangladeshi official who teaches at George Washington University, said his countrymen watched the war in Iraq with particular interest.

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“There’s a lot of talk about rebuilding Iraq and making it into a functioning democracy,” Sobhan said. “What about helping those countries which are already doing well to ensure that they remain democracies?”

Bangladesh has been a struggling democracy since 1971, when the Bengali-speaking portion of Pakistan launched a successful revolt against the Pakistani army. The small country on the Bay of Bengal, one of the most densely populated regions in the world, has been prone to disasters and always desperately poor, with 34% of its population living below the poverty line.

And now the apparel industry, which employs 1.5 million of the country’s 133 million people, is in trouble: Exports have been eroded by the global economic downturn, the rise of China as a garment manufacturer and, most stingingly, changing U.S. trade policies.

The United States buys about 40% of the $4.5 billion in apparel exported by Bangladesh, helping to turn the country into one of the world’s largest producers of men’s dress shirts and khaki pants.

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After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. retailers reduced their orders, and today they are paying 30% to 50% less for shirts, slacks and other items, as weak global demand has driven down prices. The consequence: Companies in Bangladesh have eliminated 300,000 jobs and closed 1,200 factories, most of them in Dhaka and Chittagong, the major port.

But more than economic fundamentals are hurting Bangladeshi apparel companies. In 2002, the United States began giving special trade preferences to African, Andean and Caribbean apparel manufacturers. A U.S. company that buys a pair of slacks or a blouse from Bangladesh pays a tariff that is 8% to 30% higher than if it came from, say, Uganda or Peru.

The U.S. government says Bangladesh is such a world-class apparel producer that it doesn’t need special treatment. That’s hardly solace to the leaders of a country in which at least 35% of adults are unemployed and the per-capita annual income of $370 is one of the lowest in the world.

Demise of Child Labor

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Like other developing countries, Bangladesh catapulted into the global economy on the back of its cheap, plentiful labor force. During the 1980s, the apparel industry here ballooned as entrepreneurs turned dilapidated multistory buildings into sweatshops, many without ventilation or fire escapes. Workers, mostly young women and girls, migrated to the cities and toiled from dawn to nightfall. They earned a few pennies an hour, but that was more than they could make in the fields or cleaning house.

By the mid-1990s, labor activists estimated that as many as 50,000 children were helping to sew clothes for U.S. retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kmart Corp.

Media exposes sparked the threat of a consumer boycott in the United States. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) proposed prohibiting the import of any manufactured or mined goods made by children under age 15.

Threatened with the loss of its second-largest market, the Bangladeshi garment association signed a landmark child labor pact with the United Nation’s International Labor Organization and UNICEF on July 4, 1995. Not only would manufacturers stop employing children younger than 14, but the factories also would pay to have former child laborers educated. And parents would be given about $5 a month to offset the loss of a child’s earnings.

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So now, Salma and her 12-year-old sister spend their mornings studying in a schoolhouse in a crowded slum in the shadow of Dhaka’s downtown office buildings. When asked a question, the shy teenager hides her face behind her silky red sari, barely speaking above a whisper. Her favorite subjects? “English and math.”

Salma describes herself as lucky.

In the alley just outside her schoolroom, young girls beat rocks with large hammers, breaking off chunks that will be used to make bricks. They are wearing padded gloves, their faces covered with scarves. For their backbreaking labor, they will earn 10 to 20 taka -- 18 to 35 cents -- a day.

There is no way of knowing whether these girls might have found less-taxing work in an apparel factory if the child labor agreement hadn’t been forged. But critics of the pact call it a well-intentioned failure. They say many young former factory workers ended up in far more dangerous jobs, including prostitution, because their families depend on their wages for survival.

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“One girl told me, ‘I was earning 2,200 taka [$39] at the garment factory and I was helping my seven-member family survive. Please give my job back,’ ” said Mashuda Khatun Shefali, executive director of the Centre for Women’s Initiatives, a Dhaka social services organization. “That is the reality.”

U.S. Defends Program

In Washington, government officials consider the child labor project a model; the United States has helped established similar programs in Pakistan’s rug and soccer ball industries. A Labor Department spokesman said Bangladeshi factory owners were pioneers in the global battle against child labor and should be “applauded for their efforts.”

But the United States never made any quid pro quo promises to Bangladesh, the spokesman said, adding that giving it beneficial trade status is a “matter for Congress.”

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Harkin said the opposite is true. A spokesman for the senator said it was up to the Bush administration to decide whether -- and how -- Bangladesh should be rewarded for the “great job” it has done in all but eliminating children from apparel factory floors.

To Bangladeshis, it sounds as if even its friends in Washington are passing the buck.

“Unless you do something grossly and basically wrong, such as enter a nuclear race or an arms race, you are not recognized,” said Bangladeshi Foreign Minister M. Morshed Khan.

Edward Gresser, director of trade and global markets at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, said the United States had inadvertently worsened the economic situation for Bangladesh and other Muslim countries by giving special trade benefits to non-Muslim countries.

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He warned that the effect would be “to enlarge an already daunting pool of unemployable urban young people in the Muslim world, those most likely to be vulnerable to appeals from religious fundamentalists and terrorist groups.”

U.S. officials say they are not ignoring Muslim economies, pointing to a free-trade pact the United States has with Jordan and a proposed agreement with Morocco. Bangladesh received $84 million in U.S. nonmilitary aid in 2002, compared with Pakistan’s $625 million.

Fierce Battle for Market

In the United States, the powerful domestic textile and apparel manufacturing lobby has fought hard to protect the dwindling U.S. manufacturing base from low-cost imports. The American Textile Manufacturers Institute lobbied against proposals by American and foreign officials that allies in the U.S.-led war on terrorism -- including Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey -- be given preferential access to U.S. apparel markets.

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“You shouldn’t use the U.S. textile industry as a bargaining chip with Muslim countries,” said Cass Johnson, a spokesman for the manufacturers group.

Other industrialized countries have responded to Bangladesh’s plight: Japan, Canada and Australia recently joined the EU in agreeing to provide quota-free and duty-free access with some restrictions for apparel products from the country.

But Bangladeshis fear that any gains will be obliterated in 2005, when the United States and other importing countries are scheduled to eliminate all apparel quotas. Once imports from China and India are no longer restricted, the contest for the lucrative U.S. market will be all the more fierce.

With the industry in Ban- gladesh caught by growing com- petition, falling prices and demands for higher labor standards, even longtime critics have become allies of apparel makers.

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“The U.S. must consider something for the poor people,” said Nazma Akter, a former child laborer who co-founded the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation. “We want to save this business -- otherwise we can’t have jobs, we can’t have workers rights.”


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