Written by By Anna Kordesch
The World Trade Organization (WTO) reports that Bangladesh holds the position of the world’s second-largest exporter of ready-made garments, contributing to around 6.4% of global garment exports in 2020. However, this economic success comes at a grave cost, as children aged 5-17 are often exploited and illegally employed in the Bangladeshi garment industry. This unethical practice not only deprives them of education but also limits their future opportunities. Without access to basic education, these children are forced into low-paying jobs in factories, lacking the chance to acquire skills that could lead to better-paying employment in the future. As a result, they become trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and low-wage work, perpetuating the cycle of child labor. The absence of quality education deprives these children of their potential and severely diminishes their chances of breaking free from illegal and physically demanding labor.
As conscious consumers, it is imperative that we consider the entire supply chain of the garments we purchase, including the production side, and acknowledge the potential consequences of our buying decisions. We must inquire whether a t-shirt has been ethically produced and whether child labor was involved in any stage of its manufacturing. Reflecting on these questions could contribute to providing hundreds of children in Bangladesh with an opportunity to access quality education and break free from the shackles of poverty.
The purpose of this article is to increase awareness about the issue of unequal educational attainment in Bangladesh, which is exacerbated by the prevalence of child labor and inadequate government policies aimed at eradicating child labor.
Brief history of poverty in Bangladesh
After gaining independence in 1971, Bangladesh faced a significant challenge with 80% of its population living below the poverty line. However, over the years, the government has made poverty alleviation a key priority in its development strategy. As a result, the poverty rate has decreased from 80% to 24.3%, which still means that approximately 35 million people in Bangladesh are living below the poverty line (UNESCO, 2009).
The government’s efforts to tackle poverty have been supported by sustained economic growth, driven in part by sound macroeconomic policies and an increase in exports of readymade garments. As a result, the overall poverty rate has declined from 13.47% in 2016 to 10.44% in 2022 (Dhaka Tribune, 2022).
Despite these achievements, recent trends suggest a slowing down in the rate of poverty reduction in Bangladesh. Moreover, the impact of poverty alleviation measures has been uneven between rural and urban areas, as the country undergoes rapid urbanization. This indicates that while progress has been made in reducing poverty, challenges remain in ensuring equitable poverty reduction across different regions of the country.
Although Bangladesh has experienced rapid economic growth and is considered one of the fastest growing countries, income inequality remains a significant and pressing issue. In fact, income inequality in Bangladesh has reached unprecedented levels not seen since 1972. Despite the growth of the readymade garments export industry, the benefits of this economic sector have not been evenly distributed, leading to a low ranking of 133rd out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index.
One stark indicator of income inequality is the contrasting income shares between the bottom 40% of the population and the richest 10%. The income share of the bottom 40% is merely 21%, while the richest 10% enjoy a significantly higher share of 27%, illustrating a sharp disparity in wealth distribution (World Bank, 2023). These disparities in income distribution highlight the urgent need for addressing income inequality in Bangladesh, as it poses challenges to achieving inclusive and equitable development. Efforts to tackle this issue require a comprehensive approach that considers factors such as economic policies, social welfare programs, and targeted interventions to ensure that the benefits of economic growth are shared more widely among all segments of the population.
Child labor in Bangladesh
The inherent inequality and income disparities within Bangladesh have a clear impact on the educational attainment of children across the country. Child labor is unfortunately prevalent in many parts of Bangladesh, especially in rural areas where poverty rates are high and access to education is limited. Districts such as Chittagong, Rajshahi, and Sylhet have particularly high incidences of child labor, as they are located in the rural outskirts of Bangladesh, highlighting the aforementioned intra-country inequality.
The poverty resulting from this inequality has dire consequences for Bangladeshi children, who are forced to engage in illegal employment to combat poverty. Approximately three out of every five children are employed in the agricultural sector, while 14.7% work in the industrial sector, and the remaining 23.3% work in services (Global People Strategist, 2021). Although the government of Bangladesh ratified the International Labor Organization Convention in early 2022, which clearly stipulates the minimum age for employment in Article 138, children in Bangladesh continue to be subjected to the worst forms of child labor, including commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor in activities such as drying of fish and brick production.
A troubling aspect is that the Bangladesh Labor Act does not apply to the informal sector, where the majority of child labor in Bangladesh takes place. Reports of violence against child workers in various sectors, including domestic work, have been documented. In 2018, over 400,000 children worked in domestic work in Bangladesh, with girls often being abused by their employers. Additionally, reports indicate that from January to November 2012, 28 children were subjected to torture while working as housemaids (Global People Strategist, 2021).
These children are compelled to join the workforce in both formal and informal sectors out of sheer survival necessity to provide for their families, and are unlikely to return to their studies. A UNICEF report revealed that children under the age of 14 who have dropped out of school for work are laboring an average of 64 hours per week. Putting this number into perspective, European labor laws limit working hours to 48 hours per week, including overtime (UNICEF, 2021).
Current Educational Picture
The issue of educational attainment in Bangladesh exhibits significant inequality, which is attributed to both structural inequalities in the country and weaknesses in the governance of the education sector.
School participation rates also highlight disparities, with 10% of children of official primary school age being out of school. Among primary school-aged children in Bangladesh, the greatest disparity is observed between the poorest and the richest children, which can be linked to the broader inequality between households in the country. This disparity is supported by a 2019 UNICEF report that indicates completion rates for upper secondary school are 50% for the wealthiest children but only 12% for the poorest (UNICEF, 2019).
The Bangladeshi government has attempted to address education inequality at the primary level through a conditional cash transfer program targeted at poor children, which covers 40% of rural students. However, this program leaves a substantial proportion of poor children uncovered, despite their high levels of poverty. This initiative has resulted in a rapid increase in primary school enrollment, with 7.8 million children receiving stipends of $1 each.
Nevertheless, due to biased decision-making that favors the non-poor, the government’s
recurrent spending on education is disproportionately allocated, with 68% of total government spending directed towards the non-poor, despite this group representing only 50% of the primary school-aged population (World Bank, 2018). These statistics highlight that while there may be governmental intentions to improve educational attainment in Bangladesh, the reality presents a different picture, with rural children facing continued disadvantages in terms of national educational governance.
In short, quality education is essential for the eradication of poverty giving children the chance at a better life. Helping children turn away from child labor, requires the emphasis on the reduction on family poverty. Only quality educational attainment will become available for every child regardless of their socio-economic background can the future generation of Bangladesh flourish under the governments aid program. The primary purpose of the government of Bangladesh should be to protect children from the detrimental effect of child labor and ensuring their quality education.
The first solution to mitigate unequal quality educational attainment, is to make governmental policies broader thus ensuring financial inclusion of the marginalized. Adopting appropriate macroeconomic policy which priorities education equality. More transparency in the allocation of educational resources will force the government of Bangladesh to take on a more utilitarian perspective. This new allocation of resources will allow for more interest in soft infrastructure such as the recruitment of adequate number of teachers at schools.
An additional approach to address the issue would be for the government of Bangladesh to effectively promote awareness about the significance of quality education. This awareness campaign should not only target urban areas, but also prioritize rural areas where poverty rates are particularly high.
Furthermore, as a prerequisite to raising awareness, the Bangladeshi government should focus on providing the necessary infrastructure that enables people to access education information. This entails addressing the root causes of poverty in the country to create an environment where children are not forced into labor and can instead avail themselves of educational opportunities and experience a normal childhood.
Ensuring that every child has the opportunity for quality education and a safe upbringing is of utmost importance.
UNESCO. 2009. “Governance and Education Inequality in Bangladesh.” Accessed April 16, 2023. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000180086/PDF/180086eng.pdf.multi#.
UNICEF. 2021. “The future of 37 million children in Bangladesh is at risk with their education severely affected by the COVID-10 pandemic.” Accessed April 14, 2023. https://www.unicef.org/bangladesh/en/press-releases/future-37-million-children-bangladesh-risk-their-education-severely-affected-covid.
UNICEF. n.d. “The Challenge.” Accessed April 2023. https://www.unicef.org/bangladesh/en/education.
Global People Strategist. 2021. “Facts About Child Labor in Bangladesh.” Accessed April 13 2023. https://www.globalpeoplestrategist.com/title-facts-about-child-labor-in-bangladesh/.
Hosen, Aoulad, S.M. Mujahidul Islam, and Sogir Khandoker. 2010. “Child Labor and Child Education in Bangladesh: Issues, Consequences and Involvements.” International Business Research Issues 3, no. 2: 1-8.
Dhaka Tribune. 2022. “Report: 35m Bangladeshis still live below poverty line.” Accessed April 13, 2023. https://www.dhakatribune.com/business/2023/01/22/report-35m-bangladeshis-still-live-below-poverty-line.
World Bank. 2023. “Poverty & Equity Brief.” Accessed April 10, 2023. https://databankfiles.worldbank.org/public/ddpext_download/poverty/987B9C90-CB9F-4D93-AE8C-750588BF00QA/current/Global_POVEQ_BGD.pdf.
Bureau of International Labor Reports. 2021. “Child Labor and Forced Labor Reports.” Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/bangladesh.
UNICEF. 2019. “Bangladesh Education Fact Sheets 2020.” Accessed April 13, 2023. file:///Users/annakordesch/Downloads/Bangladesh-Education-Fact-Sheets_V7%20(1).pdf.
World Bank. 2018. “National Education Profile.” Accessed April 14, 2023. https://www.epdc.org/sites/default/files/documents/EPDC_NEP_2018_Bangladesh.pdf.