Twelve-year-old Shohag works at least 14 hours a day in a dormitory canteen of Jahangirnagar University to support his family.
Though he is often beaten by his employer for even the slightest mistakes, Shohag is happy that he has at least something to look up to at the end of the month: his wage, though too poor, compared to the senior canteen boys and those working at food stalls outside the dormitories.
“I wanted to continue my studies in school, but my family could not afford it and sent me here. I am now saving money so that I can send it to my ailing father back home,” said the child, hailing from Kishoreganj.
Sagor, 10, has been working at a food stall on the campus for the last two years as his father died. He said: "Sometimes I miss my parents so much that I cannot help crying… but since we are poor, I must continue working."
He too had to quit studies, but against his will, and thinks he has no way resume studying.
Sagor is paid Tk2,500 a month for around 12 working hours every day.
Besides them, hundreds of children are working on the campus’s different canteens and food outlets as authorities remain blasé about violation of children’s rights and laws prohibiting underage employment.
The working conditions are in general unsuitable for children when the employers often behave rudely with them.
Poverty and hunger have pushed most of these children, often as young as seven years of age, to drop out of school and work for a small sum of money. From early morning till midnight they work hard almost without exceptions to earn their livelihood and supplement their family income. Many of them get only food and clothes in return and occasionally a paltry ‘pocket money’ of Tk50-60 per week.
They have no weekly holidays and are allowed to visit their families only during the vacations.
This correspondent has recently visited a number of dormitories and food stalls at Dairy Gate, Prantik Gate and Bot-tola and found around 70-80 children aged between 7 and 14 years working there. The number, if transpired, is increasing thanks to indifference of the authorities.
Bangladesh banned child labour through the Children Act 1974 of Bangladesh, which classified children under the age of 14. According to the UN convention, all forms of labour are prohibited for children – below 18 years of age.
Most of the children working at JU hailed from Noakhali, Feni, Chandpur, Manikganj, Jamalpur and other districts of crisis-stricken northern Bangladesh. The abject poverty of people in these regions has made their children an unwitting victim of child labour.
Several shop owners claimed that they recruit minor employees since they, unlike the grown-ups, are ready to work in return for low wages and even three meals a day.
Malek, an employer, said: “The key reason behind employing minors is that they are from very poor families and are satisfied with whatever salary they are offered.”
Mashrur Shahid Hossain, a teacher at the department of English, said few in JU seemed to pay any heed to the labour law. “It is very sad that such flagrant disregard for human rights and laws is taking place in a place like JU. This is as much a legal issue as economic, and our authorities should think sincerely about the consequences of these matters.
“But law can do little in changing the scenario; the problem emanates from the social and economic instability of those families the boys come from. Child labour cannot be prevented unless these issues are addressed,” he observed.
Ibrahim, 52, a food stall owner at Bot-tala and father of two children, does not expect his kids to inherit his business of hard labour, though he continues to engage minor children in the job. He, however, declined to comment when asked why he does so.
JU Vice-Chancellor Prof M Anwar Hossain told the Dhaka Tribune that the issue of child labour in JU should be considered as part of a national problem, which could be addressed through an integrated approach and honest intent of all the concerned.
“We are concerned about the problem [on the campus] and looking for ways to solve it once and for all. But it will take time,” he added.