Still a lost generation

ARTICLE | 21 April 2016
Suraiya Haque talks to Swedwatch about the situation for textile workers’ children in Bangladesh. Foto: Swedwatch

Three years have passed since the Rana Plaza tragedy. The rights of textile workers’ children are still far from a priority for local suppliers and foreign buyers of garments, according to a local child rights expert.

To put the spotlight on the child rights perspective in Bangladesh, Swedwatch published the report 44 Children in 2014 – one year after the Rana Plaza, the deadliest garment-factory accident in history. The disaster, that claimed the lives of more than 1 100 factory workers, took place in Dhaka on April 24 2013 when an eight-story building housing several garment factories suddenly collapsed. Swedwatch’ s report identified a severe need for proper childcare facilities for their physical and mental growth, while the parents are working 10 to 12 hours and making clothes for foreign buyers. In 2014 none of the companies that Swedwatch interviewed systematically included workers’ children and families in their sustainability work.

Suraiya Haque, expert in workplace- and community-based childcare centers in Bangladesh, was interviewed for the Swedwatch report in 2014. She is the Executive Director of Phulki, an NGO working with disadvantaged children and women in Dhaka. To mark the third year of the Rana Plaza incident, Swedwatch asked Haque to comment on the current situation.

Have there been any changes in the situation of garment workers’ children since the Rana Plaza incident?

Most of the improvements in the industry have focused on workers’ occupational health and safety. Children under six are still in a very vulnerable situation. Bangladeshi Labour Law requires mandatory free childcare facilities at the factory, with trained caregivers and nutritious food. According to workers I meet, those services are only available during a visit by either a foreign buyer or an auditor. Instead, workers are forced to leave their children at home, either with a relative, a sibling or with a neighbor. Neighbors tend to have their own families and duties to take care of. Alternatively, workers will send their children to their home villages.

With such insecurity and instability, worker parents are willing to pay for the opportunity of leaving their children in a community based childcare center – if it is run by a NGO. But such services are rare.

Are you aware of any new initiatives from foreign companies, aimed at raising attention towards children’s rights?

To my knowledge, child labour is the only child related right that is addressed and included in buyer companies’ codes of conduct. Options for proper childcare facilities for workers’ children remains secondary for the global buyers.

Apart from one German company (ALDI that already works with Phulki), no other buyers have since Rana Plaza approached Phulki to train caregivers or run child care centers at their suppliers’ factories. Their goal is to provide active childcare facilities at all their sourcing factories.

To what extent are questions of workers’ children’s rights discussed in public forums or trade union meetings?

The active trade unions are highly male dominated. Childcare and child related concerns are therefore never prioritised during discussions and negotiations at the factories. These matters are normally considered as women’s personal issues.

There is a need for a common platform where all the national and international organisations can come together to discuss child right related questions in Bangladesh, and push for mainstreaming the challenges of workers’ children in the garment sector.

In what ways can Swedish clothing companies and Swedish policy makers contribute to improving the situation for the children of Bangladeshi textile workers?

It is very important for the global buyers to understand that childcare is a child right – not a charity or a non-compliance issue. If foreign buyers actively include workers’ children into their “mainstream supply chain”, it would eventually lead to a more prosperous and sustainable garment industry in Bangladesh.

My recommendation to the Swedish policy makers is to ensure that the rights of the workers’ children is mentioned in Sweden’s aid development programmes.