Researchers have identified a very simple, universal solution to child labor’s vicious cycle of poverty

Ridoy, who is 7, works at a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that makes metal utensils.
Ridoy, who is 7, works at a factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, that makes metal utensils.
Image: AP Photo/A.M. Ahad
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When a UK think tank interviewed 2,700 children in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, for an extensive new report on child labor, one girl they spoke with was a 14-year-old named Shilpa. She had completed a few years of schooling in a rural area before moving to Bangladesh’s capital and largest city, where she finished grade 5 and then took work stitching clothes in a garment factory.

“I’m happy to help my family, but I don’t have dreams,” she told the researchers from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) when asked about her hopes for the future, “and I will not be returning to school.”

Her experience points to one of the most pernicious aspects of child labor: It robs children of the education they need to succeed, and to improve their families’ economic prospects. The result is a cycle where children “making early entry into the world of insecure, unskilled, low-paid work are unlikely to accumulate the education they need to secure decent work and break the transmission of poverty across generations,” the report says. Long-term, child labor keeps families poor.

It also illustrates why child labor is such an intractable problem—worldwide, 168 million children do such labor, according to the International Labour Organization (and as shocking as that number is, it represents progress—the figure is down about a third since 2000). Shame-inducing exposés of children working in the factories of international brands (as well as tragedies such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse) have led to coordinated efforts to hold factory owners accountable, but these often amount to a game of whack-a-mole—one unscrupulous factory is shut down, only for another to spring up. Vast and impenetrable networks of subcontracting factories make tracing, let alone policing, the supply chain next to impossible. And international brands keep the whole system going because labor in Bangladesh is just so cheap.

The new report argues that holding factory owners accountable—on its own—isn’t enough. And it points to another essential tool in the fight against child labor: education itself. Specifically, the researchers argue that requiring students to go to school for longer, and involving schools in the effort to keep kids out of factories, is a necessary part of the strategy.

“Extending compulsory education to the age of 14 is likely to prove more effective than enforcing a ban on child labour through factory and informal sector inspection, though the latter certainly needs strengthening,” the researchers write. “Apart from anything else, monitoring a child’s presence in school is administratively easier than monitoring (and potentially prosecuting) small-scale employers.”

Of course, like Shilpa, most child laborers work out of dire necessity. They have to contribute financially to meet their household’s basic needs, and that income becomes a more immediate necessity than schooling. That’s why the report goes on to say that mandatory education and a minimum working age in themselves are not enough. “Introduced as a stand-alone measure in a
situation where less child labour will exacerbate poverty and increase vulnerability, the likely result is that parents will allow their children to find illicit routes back into work,” they write. “However, coupling that legislation with cash transfer programmes, targeted support, the provision of good quality schools, and interventions that improve the labour market position of the poorest households, has the potential to produce transformative results.”

The specifics of the policy recommendations the ODI offered for Bangladesh could prove applicable elsewhere, especially in rapidly urbanizing areas similar to Bangladesh. Here are some of the report’s key suggestions:

Get schools more involved in keeping kids out of factories

The group recommends a single integrated strategy among the separate government bodies that deal with labor and education, focused on preventing children between the ages of 6 and 14 from being drawn out of school and into the workforce. It identifies the ages of 10 to 12 as being particularly critical for public-policy intervention. In that period, around 20% of girls and 25% of boys in the slums moved into the workforce.

In combination, the government should work to increase its own reporting on child labor and children’s education status. ”An obvious corollary is that schools should be a key reporting conduit on child labour,” it adds. “School authorities should be engaging with community-based groups and municipal authorities to identify children who are either working or at risk of child labour as a consequence of school drop-out.”

Raise the age for free, compulsory education

The ODI notes that evidence from history offers some mixed conclusions on how effective compulsory education is at keeping kids in school. In 19th-century Britain, it worked well and led to a decline in child labor, but in the early 20th-century US, compulsory education is estimated to have had a minimal effect on school enrollment.

Still, raising the age at which free, compulsory education ceases is critical for Bangladesh. Currently it’s age 10, which is also the time that children start entering the workforce. The ODI believes it should be raised to age 14.

“One of the take-home messages to emerge is that Bangladesh will not achieve the 2030 development goals on education and other objectives without a strengthened commitment to eradicate child labour,” the report says, “and the country will not eradicate child labour without making education compulsory and free for the 6–14 age group.”

This point is crucial, given that the one of the reasons children gave for why they left school and began to work was that they couldn’t afford school fees.

The ODI also points out that extending compulsory education is more effective than inspecting factories to enforce a ban on child labor, especially if schools are more active in reporting drop-outs. Though the ODI points out that the garment sector does need stricter regulatory oversight, given its high levels of child labor.

Provide conditional—and unconditional—cash transfers

Cash-transfer programs could help reduce child labor in a few ways. If they’re conditional on a child attending school, they obviously create an incentive for parents to keep their child engaged in her studies. But the authors note there’s evidence from other studies that unconditional cash transfers also help keep children enrolled in school.

Both the conditional and unconditional programs can help reduce some of the pressures that drive children into the workforce to begin with, such poverty, debt, and the inability to pay school fees. They make educating children affordable for poor parents. One review of 19 cash-transfer programs the ODI cites found eight that registered a significant decrease in child labor, and another five that showed a decrease in the number of hours children worked.

Improve the quality of education

The need to improve the quality of schooling in Dhaka’s slums is “urgent,” the ODI reports. Classroom conditions are poor, with many even lacking electricity. Too many students don’t learn the basic numeracy and literacy skills they should, and the environment can be harsh. One 12-year-old boy quoted in the report says his teachers beat him and he was “scared of going to school.”

These problems contribute to child labor by “creating a ‘supply’ of potential recruits,” according to the report. Raising the quality of education, combined with the proposed increase in the age of free, compulsory schooling, could speed progress to eradicating child labor.

It suggests efforts to better train teachers, and says evidence from other developing nations shows that early childhood programs can be effective in helping students bridge the gap between what is often a poor, non-literate home environment and the classroom.

Get international brands to press for real change

The sector employing most of the children was Dhaka’s bustling garment industry, which supplies a number of global and domestic clothing brands, making it “highly probable,” that children in Dhaka are making clothes for export to the US, Europe, and elsewhere, the ODI says.

“We do not state outright that named foreign brands can be linked to factories employing child labour,” it explains. “However, it stretches credibility to assume that the supply chains for these brands do not include significant employment of child labourers.”

Customers buying clothes made in these factories might be distressed to learn that, of the children the ODI interviewed in Dhaka’s slums, almost half were working by the age of 14—more than were still in school—and often for brutally long hours and little pay. Among all the surveyed children, who ranged in age from 6 to 14, the average work week was 64 hours—much longer than the adult work week in wealthier countries—and the average monthly wage just $47.

Since the 2013 garment factory collapse at Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza, which killed at least 1,133 people, many international clothing brands have signed on to agreements in Bangladesh meant to prevent child labor and other kinds of exploitation, but those agreements only cover a quarter of the country’s sprawling apparel industry, and implementation has been shoddy, to say the least.

“Foreign brands could do far more in terms of constructive solutions to the child labour problem,” the report notes. “As well as requiring direct suppliers to provide more and better information on their sub-contractors, they could actively support efforts to comply with higher safety standards. While ultimate responsibility for strengthening the regulatory regime rests with the Government of Bangladesh, brands could—and should—be creating incentives for firms to comply with child labour laws.”

Invest more in the future

Beefing up the education system will cost the Bangladeshi government money, but the spending is necessary to make up for past shortfalls, the report argues. ”Underinvestment in school infrastructure is part of the problem,” it concludes. “Government funding for education represents 2.1% of gross domestic product (GDP), which is low by international standards (it averages 5% of GDP in sub- Saharan Africa).”

The consequences of ignoring the problem are devastating long-term, the report argues—not just for the children involved and their families, but for Bangladesh’s economic future. ”For countries, too, extensive child labour is a roadblock to human development because it erodes the human capital on which dynamic and inclusive economic growth rising productivity and social progress depend,” the researchers write.

And this problem isn’t just Bangladesh’s. The same could be said of any other nation whose children still labor in factories.