They have neither pastime nor “May Day”. Their only thought is how to live from hand to mouth. Every child labourer in the Haragachh bidi (cigarette) factories of the district lives an intolerable life.
Despite a ban on child labour, bidi factories routinely engage children on a nominal wage. Some 1,000 children work in bidi factories to support their families.
In most cases, poverty draws the children to the workplaces where they are paid very little – only Tk27 for 1,000 bidi. Though the payment is very nominal, the child labourers remain busy around the clock, making as many bidis as they can, in the hope of raising their daily income.
They do not even know when they will finish work on a given day. It might be well beyond sunset. Alauddin, a bidi maker, leaning against a concrete beam of the factory, says, “I’ve made 2000 bidis in five hours. I have to make 1000 more today to earn another 27 taka.” The 10-year-old boy used to read in Sarai Government Primary School in class three. He left school three months ago because he was required to support his family.
Worried and tired, Alauddin said, “I have no labour registration number. I work at the factory against my father’s registration number.” His father has been suffering from tuberculosis for many years and is no longer in a position to work.
A large number of children like Alauddin work in bidi factories in the Haragachh area. Masud Rana, another child labourer, works at nearby Horin bidi factory against his mother’s registration number. The 13-year-old boy said he started in the job after his father’s death.
While talking to this correspondent Mobarak Hosain, a bidi worker of Aziz Bidi Factory, said, “I never wanted my two sons and one daughter to be involved in such odd jobs but poverty compelled me.”
From 2000 to 2004, 10 non-government organisations (NGO) with the assistance of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) provided vocational training on different trades to the children of the area. The aim of the project was to eliminate child labour. These organisations also provided financial support to 2000 children to run enterprises. Locals said as soon as the organisations withdrew their support, many children returned to the factories.
As per the government wage board, a worker gets Tk27 for making 1000 bidis. It is difficult for a worker to make 5000 bidis in a single day.
“Can a family of four members be maintained on the small income of Tk150 a day?” asked Abu Bakor, another worker of a bidi factory.
Under the banner of several labour organisations, the bidi workers at Haragachh several times held demonstrations demanding an increase in their wages, but to no effect.
Ameen Uddin, president of Haragachh - Mornea Bidi Workers Samiti (association) said engaging children in bidi factories in Haragachh is a common phenomenon, although leaders of labour organisations strictly prohibit children from working there. Asked about it, the Proprietor of Ansar Bidi, Shah Alam, said factory owners ask workers not to bring their children to work in the factories, but they always do. “It is not as though we get the children to make bidis on a lower wage,” added Shah Alam.