On the afternoon of Thursday, July 8, a fire broke out on the ground floor of the Hashem Food & Beverages factory at Rupganj, an industrial district lying at the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka. Experts have pointed to the illegal storage of chemicals and plastics on the ground floor of the building as the reason behind the fire’s rapid spread. In the aftermath of the inferno, which engulfed the six-story building, more than 50 people are known to have been killed, and many others left injured or unaccounted for. The extent of the victims’ burns, in many cases, had been so grave that rescue teams were able to recover only the bones and teeth of those who were trapped inside.
Soon after the fire, the lobby outside the Dhaka Medical College morgue began to gradually crowd with rows of stained body bags lined up on the floor. In between the larger bags lay the uncomfortably smaller ones.
The weight of the hours that flew by added to the grimness of the space. Families and friends of the victims gathered at the site of the accident, or lined up outside nearby hospitals to give their samples for DNA testing, in order to identify and collect information, or take home the bodies of their loved ones.
In the midst of this sea of people, a middle-aged woman named Sheema Akter roamed about haphazardly, hoping to find traces of her daughter, 12-year-old Shanto Moni, who had gone to work at the factory that morning. “I did not want her to work here but as schools were closed, she wanted to utilize the time by working,” Akter told TBS News.
Shanto Moni, who worked at the Shezan juice processing unit, was just one among dozens of children who had signed up for work at the factory to earn a little extra money, in order to contribute to their families who have struggled to stay afloat since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them were below the age of 18.
According to another report published by the national daily Prothom Alo, the names and age of some of these children were: Shanto (12), Takiya (14), Munna (14), Nazmul (15), Mahmud (15), Kompa (16), Himu (16), Ripon (17), and Taslima (17), in addition to many more.
Speaking of her 11-year-old nephew who had gone to work the same day as the fire and is now missing, Laizu Begum recalled, “We heard that the door of the floor where my nephew worked was padlocked. Then we realized, after seeing how big the fire was, that he is probably dead.”
It took firefighters and rescue teams more than 24 hours to put out the blaze.
Not long after, Abul Hashem, the owner of Hashem Foods, and his four sons were among the eight people arrested in connection with the Shezan factory fire, including managers and supervisors who were in charge of looking after the factory premises. Alarmed by the presence of children on the list of missing persons, an inquiry into child labor at the factory had been launched, as confirmed by Bangladesh’s Labor Minister Monnujan Sufian. “If child labor is proved, we will take action against the owner and the inspectors,” she said. In the meantime, social media users on Facebook and elsewhere began to condemn the practice of child labor at factories across the nation.
Child labor in Bangladesh is widespread and commonplace. One of the largest investigations on the subject, conducted by the Overseas Development Institute in 2016, collected surveys of approximately 2,700 slum households, which revealed that child workers dwelling in slums participate in nearly 64 hours of strenuous work per week. “Our survey raises serious concerns over the issue of child labor in the supply of garments from factories in Bangladesh to consumers in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere,” reported the London-based think tank.
Bangladesh’s garment industry, one of the largest in the world, has connections with some of the world’s most popular brands, such as H&M, Primark, and Zara. It is also infamous for employing young and underage workers, some on full-time hours, to manufacture their goods. The collapse of Rana Plaza in 2016 marked one of the worst tragedies in the country’s developmental history, claiming the lives of more than 1,100 workers and injuring hundreds of others. That disaster was the first time that evidence of the involvement of child laborers in the global apparel industry in Bangladesh was revealed on such a large scale.
According to recent accounts, nearly 13.5 percent of the total number of persons between the ages of 5 and 17 were employed in the workforce in Bangladesh as of 2019. That percentage, however, is believed to have gone up significantly in the past two years, with the rapid transmission of the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe economic consequences left in its wake.
Bangladesh’s legal framework sets out several minimum ages of employment for different sectors of work. For example, Section 76 of the Factories Rules establishes that children above the age of 14 are allowed to be legally employed at factories. However, the section does not specify a minimum age difference for either light or hazardous forms of work, thereby not taking into consideration the physical and emotional dangers involved.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines child labor as work that “is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and/or interferes with their schooling” (emphases in the original). Full-time factory work would fit both definitions – but is technically legal in Bangladesh for children aged 14 and above.
International bodies such as the ILO and UNICEF have long encouraged the responsible authorities to take measures to ensure a gradual decline in the number of children in the workforce, and grassroots non-governmental organizations such as Sohay have been involved in the initiation of educational programs for former child laborers. Regardless, stressing the eradication of child labor in countries like Bangladesh without preparing a back-up plan may turn out to be relatively ineffective. More and more families are reliant on the monetary contributions brought in by their working children, especially during times of political or economic crises and natural disasters.
The same afternoon that the chemical-induced fire swallowed one floor after another of the Rupganj factory, three young girls – Shamima, Lisa, and Faria, aged 15, 16, and 18, respectively – were spotted standing together outside the gates of the now-torched building. When asked about their presence, they anxiously answered that they were waiting there so they would receive their share of their monthly wages.
“We need the money. My father and mother both work. My sister works too, but rent is high and living in this area is expensive,” Shamima told TBS News.
“We joined work to support our families. Most of our co-workers were children,” added Lisa.
The workers at the Rupganj factory were paid 5,300 Bangladeshi taka a month, reports say, which is equivalent to $62.51. Complaints regarding not being paid wages on time – or at all – also surfaced upon further questioning. Faria informed a reporter, “Our bonus from last Eid has not yet been paid. We are still owed some over time.”
After receiving information about the employment of underage children at the factory and their probable exploitation, TBS News contacted K.M. Abdus Salam, the secretary of the Ministry of Labor and Employment, according to a recent report. In response, Salam replied that officials from the ministry had inspected factory many times in the past, but that he was not aware of any child labor violations.