Branded Childhood: How garment brands contribute to low wages, long working hours and school dropout in Bangladesh

Branded Childhood: How garment brands contribute to low wages, long working hours and school dropout in Bangladesh

This research specifically looks into the relationship between wages and working conditions of adult workers and the extent to which their children attend school or are engaged in paid/unpaid work. The objective of the research was to assess how the wages and working conditions of adult workers in export-oriented garment factories affect workers’ abilities to meet basic needs, including housing, food and education.

The aim is to answer the following questions:
- Are the wages of adult garment workers sufficient to cover their family’s basic needs, including schooling costs for their children?
- Are the children of garment workers engaged in paid work in order to add to the family income so that the family’s basic needs are covered?
- Are children of garment workers engaged in any unpaid work (e.g. household work)?
- If the children of garment workers do not attend school, what are the reasons for this?

The research was compiled through a combination of desk and field research undertaken by SOMO in cooperation with the Capacity Building Service Group (CBSG) and Bangladesh Labour Welfare Foundation (BLF). A total of 75 garment workers were interviewed – 57 female workers and 18 male workers. This gender division reflects the workplace reality in Bangladesh, where a majority – roughly 85 percent– of production workers are female. Only workers with children of school-going age were selected for the interview.

The 75 interviewed adult workers, ranging in age from 20 to 44, were employed at 14 different factory units at 10 different garment companies in Dhaka. All of these companies supply European and US brands and retailers. The interviews focused on wages, working hours and the daily activities of workers’ children. The report includes first-hand stories of workers and their children. In order to protect their identities, workers’ names have been changed to protect them from any retaliation or punishment by the factory management.

As well as the 75 interviews with adult workers, more in-depth interviews were carried out with 14 of these workers who have at least one child not attending school. Together, the 75 interviewed workers take care of 133 children of which 125 are of the school-going age. The in-depth interviews focused on the balance between work life and family life, the family’s income and expenses, and their views on education and reasons why their child(ren) does/do not attend school.

Interviews were also conducted with 11 children who were not attending school at the time of the research. In addition to their parents’ interviews, the children were asked about their own reflections on the reasons for not attending school and about the in-house (non-paid) or out-of-house jobs they were engaged in.

In addition, researchers also analysed relevant government regulations, policies and programmes on child labour, the education system and secondary data on child labour and school attendance.

The vast majority of the interviewed workers (65 out of the 75) said that their basic wage was not enough to meet their families’ basic needs and that they therefore needed to work overtime hours. One third of the workers worked more than 60 hours per week on a regular basis and yet the average total take-home salary was only a third of what would constitute a living wage. In order to cover their basic needs, interviewees had to compromise their life style by cutting costs for food, accommodation, medical treatment or their children’s education. Twenty-nine of the 125 children in the school-going age, nearly one in four, do not attend school.

This report reveals that low wages have a major impact on the lives of garment workers and their family members, in particular on their children. Garment workers work extremely long hours in order to meet a standard of living that provides only the bare necessities of life. Almost all families have multiple income earners. From this research it is clear that the interviewed garment workers are in an extremely vulnerable position and their ability to (financially) cope with major life events, such as sickness, divorce, marriage and death, is limited.

In addition to low wages, long working hours also have a detrimental impact on garment workers’ children. Not only do garment workers have little time to spend with their children, they also have little time for household chores or for taking care of young children. This research features stories of two children who were taken out of school to take care of younger siblings and six children who were taken out of school to take care of the household. Eleven children have been separated from their parents as they stayed behind in the home villages because their parents could not take care of them due to their demanding work schedule and high costs in the city compared to rural areas.

This research shows there is a link between child labour and low wages for adult workers. Low wages and long working hours have been found to play a key role in parents’ decisions to take their children out of school. In a number of cases highlighted in this report, children were not only taken out of school to reduce expenses, but they were also needed to contribute to the family income and were also engaged in paid work. Children who work and do not go to school will end up in low-paid jobs later in their lives, a legacy they are likely to pass on to their children – thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty.

Although there are an estimated 690,000 children engaged in child labour in Dhaka Division, child labour at export-oriented garment factories in Bangladesh has been greatly reduced over the past few years, in part due to buying companies’ zero tolerance policies. However, this report focuses on another more hidden aspect of child labour. The working children featured in this report are not part of the buying companies’ supply chains. They are working in other companies, sometimes in entirely different sectors. However, this form of child labour may be a consequence of the low wages in the export-oriented garment industry. By preventing workers from earning a living wage, the corporate actors – buying and supplying companies – are contributing to a system that perpetuates child labour and contributes to the violation of children’s rights. If companies do not undertake urgent steps to work towards the payment of a living wage that enables adult workers to meet their basic needs, they will still be contributing to the problem of child labour and violation of children’s rights in Bangladesh.

This report concludes with a series of concrete recommendations for brands and retailers sourcing from Bangladesh, for manufacturers, for the Government of Bangladesh and for other stakeholders arguing that, in order to combat ‘indirect child labour’, a robust living wage strategy is urgently needed.

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