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Dhaka Tribune

Under the veil of poverty: The silent crisis of child coolies

Children engaged in labour-intensive activities are prone to serious ailments, say experts

Update : 06 Jun 2023, 01:38 PM

Despite the legal prohibition on child labour in the country, a harsh reality persists, revealing that many children from impoverished families are forced to work in order to support themselves and their families. 

While some children can be seen working as driver's assistants, shopkeepers, and flower or tea sellers, there are lesser-known and seldom-seen professions like that of the porter, commonly known as coolie in the South Asian subcontinent. 

These children, hailing from underprivileged backgrounds, bear the burden of carrying market goods for the affluent in certain areas.

According to a recent report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), child labour remains a significant challenge in Bangladesh. The report estimates that approximately 4.9 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 are engaged in child labour across various sectors in the country.

Dhaka Tribune conducted interviews with some of these children in the Kochukhet area of the capital city, delving into their entry into this profession, the nature of their work, and their income. 

One such child is 12-year-old Musharraf, who candidly expressed: “If I don't work for a day, I lose 500 taka. So, no matter how difficult it is, I have to work every day.”

Musharraf's journey began at the age of 10 when he migrated from Kishoreganj to Dhaka with his parents. The family faced an arduous struggle to make ends meet, as his rickshaw puller father's income was insufficient due to rising commodity prices. 

Soon after arriving in Dhaka, Musharraf joined his father in the search for work, taking on the responsibility of supporting the family. Thus, at an age when he should have been enjoying his childhood, he found himself toiling as a coolie, a job that became his profession and livelihood.

Residing in the Ibrahimpur area, Musharraf is the third among six siblings. For two years, he worked two shifts daily in the market, from 9am to 10pm. 

These children essentially accompany customers throughout their shopping, receiving varying wages for their work – ranging from Tk20 to occasional donations of Tk100.

According to a survey conducted by Unicef, the average daily income of child labourers in Bangladesh ranges from Tk150 to Tk500, with variations depending on the nature of the work and the location.

Musharraf's daily income fluctuates between Tk200 and Tk500, which he finds satisfactory. 

Although he has no lofty ambitions, he retains a certain interest in his studies. In the afternoons, like many other child labourers in the Kochukhet area, he attends a mobile school where the authorities provide lunch. After returning home, he rests briefly before heading back to the marketplace.

When asked about the difficulty of the work throughout the day, Musharraf acknowledged its challenges but remarked in a mood of resignation: “It is difficult, but I have no choice. This is what I must do.”

This young teenager's motivation stems from his desire to assist his father, allowing him to persevere despite the hardships.

Similar circumstances can be found in the story of 14-year-old Noman, who has worked as a coolie for approximately eight years. Noman's father also pulls a rickshaw, while his mother does household chores. Together with his parents, Noman strives to support the family. Consequently, he spends most of his day in the market, from morning till night.

Both Noman and Musharraf lead busy lives, leaving them little time for conversation. Engaging in excessive conversation hampers their business, as buyers in the market provide them with money and swiftly move on. Consequently, the story of their struggles and the harsh realities of their livelihoods remain hidden.

Regrettably, these children are deprived of essential facilities such as education, sports and entertainment. The demanding labour they undertake at a young age badly impacts their physical growth.

According to a study by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, child labour significantly affects children's educational opportunities. The study reveals that approximately 1.8 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are engaged in hazardous forms of labour, which greatly hampers their ability to attend school regularly.

Major (Retired) Dr Md Mehdi Hasan, a paediatrician, expressed concern about the physical development of children engaged in heavy labour. 

He cautioned: “During a specific period, children's bones develop along with their bodies. Heavy work or carrying burdens during this time can significantly harm bone and physical development.”

Continuously bearing heavy loads can cause severe damage to their spinal bones, hindering their overall physical development. The consequences are often manifested in various complications starting around the age of 40, including bone loss, spinal curvature, and a myriad of other health issues.

Tahmina Ferdowsi, a child health and nutrition expert from the non-governmental organization Save the Children, stated that child labour poses significant risks to children's physical and mental well-being, leading to stunted development. In the case of Bangladesh, when children undertake such work, their health risks are amplified.

Children engaged in labour-intensive activities are prone to ailments such as coughs, tuberculosis, pneumonia, bronchitis, heart disease, skin conditions, kidney complications, and even lung cancer.

As the issue of child labour persists in Bangladesh, urgent and comprehensive measures are necessary to protect these vulnerable children and ensure their fundamental rights to education, health, and a childhood free from exploitation.

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