Eating his simple breakfast – leftover rice from the previous night soaked in water and seasoned with salt – Zakaria watched this reporter approach him with curious eyes, but he had yet to show any interest in speaking.
The reason for his silence became clear in a few moments – his father, Siddique, who was working at the riverbank, piling up stones that the father-son duo had collected all morning.
This reporter tried to speak with Siddique, who ignored the questions and kept on working. The glare that he sent his son’s way could mean only one thing: a warning for Zakaria not to speak with the stranger.
The locals of Jaflong, in Sylhet’s Gowainghat upazila, live in abject poverty and are heavily dependent on stone collecting or working for different stone quarries in the area
However, once Siddique moved away from the spot, Zakaria was all for a conversation.
The duo had been working at the river since 5am in the morning, he told this reporter as he finished up his breakfast.
“My mother and sister were working with us too, but they left to make our meals,” he added.
Zakaria and his father were not the only ones at the river collecting stones; there were at least 200 boats in the river, all getting filled up with stones when this correspondent visited the area last week.
Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum organised the visit, which was funded by Terre des Hommes, an international agency working for child welfare.
The locals of Jaflong, in Sylhet’s Gowainghat upazila, live in abject poverty and are heavily dependent on stone collecting or working for different stone quarries in the area.
It is normal for them to have all family members – children included – work to collect or extract stones, because the alternative is, in most cases, starving.
Zakaria said he and his father needed to collect at least 23 square feet of stones by the end of the day to earn Tk500 as they were running out of supplies at home.
It’s all done manually
Locals told the Dhaka Tribune that the number of stone extractors working in Piyan River was far smaller than usual due to the government ban on stone extraction in the region.
“Before the ban, at least 50,000 workers would collect stones from the river every day, and another 50,000 worked at the quarries in Jaflong,” said Babul Bakht, president of Stone Quarry Factory Owners’ Association in Jaflong.
This winter, the stone quarry owners obtained a High Court order on November 22 that allowed workers to extract stones from the rivers using only manual methods, he added.
Zakaria explained how: one worker would dive, without any gear, into the water with a rope and find a suitable stone – sometimes dig them up a little bit from the riverbed – and tie the rope around it.
The diver would then tug on the rope to send a signal to the worker waiting on the boat, who would pull the stone up.
Stone quarry owners wait on the riverside to buy the stones from the collectors – each square foot of stones is sold at Tk22. The collectors would further charge the quarry owners Tk300 for unloading the stones from the boat.
Winter is the best time to extract stones from the rivers as the water level is at its lowest and the rivers are at their tamest, they added. Zakaria said the deepest dive he had had in Piyan this winter was seven or eight feet.
Locals said at least 500,000 people in Jaflong, Bholaganj and Bisanakandi – three border areas in Sylhet – were directly or indirectly involved with stone extraction before the government banned it.
Though the number is far smaller now, there are still a significant number of families working around the rivers and stone quarries in the three border areas, living close to the sites in makeshift huts.
Poverty makes child labour acceptable
When asked why he was working when he ought to be in school, Zakaria smiled.
“I go to school sometimes, but now I am busy collecting stones,” he managed to tell this reporter before his father returned and rowed the boat away, visibly annoyed that his son had spoken to a stranger.
But another worker, Sohel Miah, who has been working in a stone quarry for the past 12 years, was less reluctant to talk.
“If we do not engage our children to work here, we will not be able to collect more stones and bring in more money. What will we eat then?” he said. “The quarry owners do not care about the age limit of the collectors; they only care about the square feet.”
A 2014 study on stone quarries, conducted by Assraf Seddiky, assistant professor at the public administration department of Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, revealed that around 30% of the workers are child labourers aged between 8 and 16 years.
Asked about it, Bablu Bakht said: “We have nothing to do with children working here; they work of their own accord. But in future, we will take measures to stop children from working here.”
“We are aware of children working to collect stones, but it is difficult to catch them in action as they somehow learn and get away from the sites whenever mobile courts raid them,” said Ashraf Ahmed Rasel, assistant commissioner of land and acting upzila nirbahi officer of Gowainghat.
“Eradicating child labour from this area will be extremely difficult as most of these families are extremely poor,” said Joynal Abedin, deputy commissioner of Sylhet. “But the government has taken different steps to alleviate their poverty. Once the tourism zone here gets established, these people will have better places to work, and the practice of child labour will eventually come to an end.”