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What is the current scenario of child labor in Bangladesh?

What is the current scenario of child labor in Bangladesh?

The Political Economy of the Child Labor Market in Bangladesh H&M, Zara, GAP, and SHEIN are some popular fast fashion brands that everyone has encountered or even bought clothes from. With the increasing demand, brands are pressured to be in a constant cycle of production. To keep up with such rapid turnover, brands opt for child labor to keep costs low. This is fuelled by the capitalist economic system that pushes firms to compete with each other.  Less developed countries are often the places where firms outsource the labor from. In this paper, our primary focus will be Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, the law (Section 34) states that the employment of children below the age of 14 are prohibited from working. Despite institutional barriers that are meant to protect against this, 13.4% of children between the ages of 5-14 are still employed.

Of the 13.4%, a sizable portion is hired by the fast fashion supply chains that drive the textile industry in Bangladesh. Unicef reported that these supply chains benefit because of the low level of skill required as well as the low wages demanded by these children. We will explore the cooperation and conflicts between actors in that particular market, namely the children, their families, and capitalists.

Child labourers, Macon, Georgia, 1909

According to Marxian theory, the capitalist circuit of production explains why the labor market is such an integral aspect of capitalism. The labor market exists between M (money) to C (capital), where capitalists are spending money in order to attain labor power and other means of production. It is also at this stage that capitalists can best cut down on costs in order to reduce the amount of initial money used. Given competition across firms, capitalists are incentivized to cut costs even through unethical methods, such as child labor. Such competition is especially present in the fast fashion market, where firms need to gain a competitive advantage over others.

This is especially since fast fashion is seen to generally exist in an oligopoly, dominated by four big players – Zara, H&M, Gap and Uniqlo. Oligarchies either tend to collude or compete. Given that in fashion, capitalists tend to compete based on style and comfort, competition makes more sense and they compete to lower labor costs. They tend to gravitate toward child workers because the appeal of children lies both in the low cost and ‘irreplaceable skills’. These capitalists, mostly based in developed countries, tend to outsource labor to less developed countries, where child labor is more accessible given less enforced laws against it and cheaper costs.

A succession of laws on child labour, the so-called Factory Acts, were passed in the UK in the 19th century. Children younger than 9 were not allowed to work, those aged 9–16 could work 12 hours per day per the Cotton Mills Act. In 1856, the law permitted child labour past age 9, for 60 hours per week, night or day. In 1901, the permissible child labour age was raised to 12.

  Another critical reason behind the appeal of child labor is because it overcomes the conflict of capitalism that Marx outlines, that is its ‘internal contradiction’. Here, he asserts that cutting costs by paying workers less from M to C means that individuals have less purchasing power, affecting the commodity market from C’ to M’. This is not the case when fast fashion firms outsource labour to children of less developed countries, a group that is evidently not their target market. This means a successful separation of the labor market and the commodity market, allowing for low wages and high consumption simultaneously. Gap Inc. is evidently a company that benefits from this, given the multiple allegations that have come to light accusing them of their involvement in child labor in Bangladesh. This is largely due to their dependence on cheap textile supply chains in the company which mostly run on child labor.

This is especially problematic in Bangladesh because the garment industry is the main export sector, meaning that the government is highly dependent on these textile supply chains to maintain GDP. Furthermore, fast fashion conglomerates are the consumers of these textile supply chains.  If supply chains are contracted by a fast fashion company, they are bound to make huge profits. Therefore, the competition among supply chain companies is tough. This is known as racing to the bottom. In order to attract these brands, supply chains in Bangladesh willingly decrease labor protection and wages. This is the definition of killing two birds with one stone. On one hand, they are decreasing their cost of production and on the other hand, they are driving out their competitors. 

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 While necessary to understand the incentives that drive capitalists, the labor market is ultimately driven by cooperation. This means that it is also necessary to analyze the incentives behind why children choose to work. Children choose to work because they need the wages that capitalists own. The labor market is hence premised on this idea of mutual exchange. Children face especially high pressures to work because of the low standard of living and high poverty levels. For many children, the alternative to work is education. However, there are incredibly high barriers to education.

Though public education for primary-aged students is free, user cost remains high and there are insufficient schools in rural areas. As 50% of the population lives on $1 a day, this is not enough to cover such user costs. Child labor also predominantly exists in rural areas at an 83% majority. For these children living in rural areas, education is either financially or geographically inaccessible. This makes work a more appealing alternative. Furthermore, it takes time for the benefits of education to be realized, while the utility derived from work is immediate. Work therefore seems to have greater utility given its lower costs and immediate benefits.

While there is mutual dependence in the cooperation between child and capitalist, there still remains a power asymmetry between the two. Child workers have limited bargaining power and depend more on the capitalists than they depend on them. Because child labor is illegal, there are no unions that maximize their structural and organizational power.

2014 Poverty rate chart Chad Haiti Nigeria Bangladesh Kenya Indonesia India China Brazil based on World Bank new 2011 PPP benchmarks, CC BY-SA 3.0, M Tracy Hunter 

The limited skill set of children between the ages of 5 to 14 also restricts the possibility of exploring the market for decent work, making them unable to shop around for work. They are hence disproportionately dependent on capitalists for work. This power imbalance means that there is labor inelasticity in the market, where capitalists are able to keep wages low since workers are not as responsive to changes in wages. This inelasticity means children cannot demand higher wages or better working conditions. Children therefore not only lose out on educational opportunities, but are not fairly compensated for the work that they do. Given the constant chain of demands in the fast fashion industry, children are often forced to work 43 hours a week and in hazardous working conditions.

Another important factor that contributes to child labor is high unemployment among young adults. In Bangladesh, this can be explained using the concept of urban migration. Because job prospects in the countryside are very limited and might not be suitable for their qualifications, most skilled young adults migrate to urban areas. This movement simultaneously creates a surplus of labor in urban areas and a shortage of labor in rural areas. In cities like Dhaka, there are not enough jobs to meet the growing surge of labor supply.

Flooding after the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone, which killed around 140,000 people

Therefore, young adults find themselves without a job, making education seem like an unworthy investment since jobs remain difficult to come by. In rural areas where there is a high concentration of textile factories, there is not enough supply of labor from young adults. Children hence fill up this shortage. This opens up a new, competitive market for labor as children are highly dependent on the wages they receive. As even skilled family members face difficulties in employment, the bargaining power of children further decreases as their fallback position is basically starvation. At the same time, the supply elasticity of labor becomes more inelastic as these children would take any pay, even the bare minimum which the capitalists exploit. 

  Because children are so young, they often do not make this decision on their own or even at all. Often, the family is a large reason why children end up working instead of going to school. To understand this, it is necessary that we understand social reproduction, i.e. how cultural values toward child labor lead to the self-perpetuation and normalization of such social structure. Socialization and the general acceptance of this being the natural trajectory of a child’s development largely drive families to push their children toward working.

This is also considering that parents are often less educated as well and likely started working at a young age.

Child labor then becomes the norm and families do not see the necessity that comes with investing in education. This has even been worsened because of the pandemic, with a 33% increase in child labor as schools shut down. This creates poverty traps for many individuals because it is skills from education that are necessary to obtain higher-skilled jobs that generate more capital. These children therefore grow up normalizing child labor and also being unable to afford better educational opportunities for their children. This creates a child-labor trap. Such cultural normalization of child labor fuels the cooperative element in the circuit of production, for it enables capitalists to continue to reduce money spent on labor power at the expense of the wellbeing of the children. The way family norms ultimately affect labor structuring shows how integral mindsets are in overcoming this issue.

A Chinese child repairing shoes, late 19th century,[ca. 1860-ca. 1900]

  Despite institutional barriers that exist to protect against child labor, it remains a highly unregulated market. In fact, institutional barriers such as making it completely illegal worsen the situation when there is minimal enforcement. This is because this means that there are no formal labor laws that child workers can fall back on to gain, minimally, better wages or working conditions. This often occurs in less developed countries where enforcement is difficult due to a lack of funding, making these places even more desirable for capitalists to offshore their production chains to. This is a similar response to capital flight, where companies leave the strict regulations of a parent company’s country and opt to produce in areas with much lower barriers to entry.

Ultimately, the lower risk of penalty and lack of scrutiny from consumers create higher room for profit generation and greater potential for capital accumulation, the primary motivation of capitalists. Because the lack of enforcement laws attract foreign direct investment as capitalists set up factories and invest in supply chains in Bangladesh, this further incentivizes the government not to improve enforcement. Exports of apparel to the US (where GAP Inc is situated) was worth $5.40 billion in 2018; Bangladesh hence cannot afford to lose out on this large source of revenue and growth. This therefore only perpetuates an institutionalized economic structure that supports the child labor market. Because the political economy of child labor is so deeply embedded into the socio-political lives of the people, it remains a difficult issue to fully address.

What is the current scenario of child labor in Bangladesh? Written by Ally Tutay

Ally Tutay
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