More than glass goes into making the beautiful bangles of Firozabad (India). They contain the labour of children, working under conditions of great stress and hazard.
The factories employ 200,000 people, including 50,000 children who are paid less than $0.40 a day. The Government has prohibited the employment of children in such factories, but they are hired nevertheless. They work alongside adults in front of furnaces where the glass bangles are baked, with temperatures ranging from 1,500 to 1,800 degrees centigrade.
Sliding the sheets of bangles into and out of the ovens, children are exposed not only to extreme heat but also to the asbestos from which the baking sheets are made. Those children assigned to press the bangles against a whirling wheel, in order to cut patterns into the glass, often suffer serious cuts and gashes. No first-aid treatment is available, nor is care provided for the diseases of the skin, respiratory tract or the eye, which commonly result from the work. Millions of children endure hazardous work such as this, according to The State of the World’s Children 1997 report. One of the reasons is that societies, systems and individuals have closed off other options for the poor. The need for a relatively small amount of cash can spell disaster for all the members of a poor family, when illness occurs or a crop is lost and credit or a loan is refused. Their extreme circumstances coinciding with the extreme greed of employers and moneylenders, together with a lack of opportunities and alternatives, produce what is one of the most abhorrent of practices bonded labour. Bonded children are handed over to employers by impoverished parents in exchange for small sums of money. Indistinguishable from slavery, bondage plunges children into some of the worst abuse, exploited for years because the loans are never deemed repaid.
An intermediary will, for instance, pay poor rural families an advance sum for the children or accept them in repayment for a debt; the children may be resold at large profit to business people who use them as a captive workforce. Their lifelong servitude never succeeds in even reducing the debt, says the report.
Bonded labour is usually associated with India, Nepal and Pakistan, but some examples of forced labour have also been found, according to the UNICEF report, in Brazil, Mauritania and Myanmar. And a recent report published by the Kamalayan Development Foundation in the Philippines describes the situation of children in a country not normally associated with bonded or slave labour: The child workers are treated like animals. They are caged and padlocked inside jail-like structures when they are not at work... They are assigned to living quarters that are congested, unventilated, filthy and smelly and that are not fit for human beings.
The arrestingly evident hazards of work such as bangle-making and bonded labour should not blind people to the less obvious hazards that many millions of working children may be exposed to around the world. According to The State of the World’s Children 1997 report, all forms of labour detrimental to the minds, bodies, spirits and futures of millions of children must be exposed and understood as hazardous in order to eliminate such labour by the end of the decade.
Children all over the world work for their families, hauling water and collecting firewood or undertaking a range of household tasks. They work in the fields of family farms and on commercial plantations. They labour in the streets and in markets, on construction sites and in mines.
Not all their work is hazardous. But much of it is. Children are exposed to chemicals, pesticides and dangerous equipment on farms and factories. They endure repeated infections and long hours of work so physically arduous that their growth is stunted and their mental development stalled. Forced to become adults before they have finished being children, they bear burdens and responsibilities beyond their strength and years.
When children cannot go to school because of work, that work is hazardous to their development. School is often sacrificed by poor children and their families because of the costs and the time lost from chores, condemning children to a lifetime of unskilled and poorly remunerated labour.
And many working children who do enrol in school drop out, because there are no textbooks or because what they are taught has little or nothing to do with their lives or struggles and offers them no alternative and no hope of better futures. Urging the world to take a close look at the work done by children in their homes, communities and societies, the report spells out the many ways in which work can be harmful to children. Children engaged in full-time work at too early an age and those spending too many hours a day working are at risk. Labour that exerts undue physical, social or psychological stress, is inadequately paid and carries too much responsibility, or hampers a child’s access to education, is hazardous. Any and all work that undermines a child’s dignity and self-esteem or is detrimental to full social and psychological development is hazardous, the report argues.
The report also explains that because the problem is complex, approaches to solving it must be comprehensive and complementary.
Education is an essential component of the solution, and some progress is slowly being made. In Firozabad, for example, a small project known as Disha (‘Direction’) is working with 150 children of the estimated 50,000 children involved in the glass-bangle industry.
Rajrani, 13 years old, is one of those enrolled. Despite initial resistance from her mother, who was worried about the loss of income to the family, Rajrani was enrolled in Disha’s non-formal education centre. She has changed since entering the centre’s programme; she is happier and more confident. At the school’s last annual function, she won three prizes. This year she has been admitted to a formal school. Her success has persuaded her parents that schooling is important, and her brothers have also been enrolled.
Non-governmental organizations and international agencies are working on the issue. So too are governments, especially those that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and are legally obligated to afford protection to their children from hazardous and exploitative labour. In New Delhi in 1995, for example, labour ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement condemned exploitative child labour as a moral outrage and resolved to make its total and de facto elimination an immediate priority.
UNICEF also urges its immediate elimination, so that by the end of the decade the world will be free of this crime. For so many of the world’s children, it cannot happen soon enough.