As part of a series assessing whether Bangladesh is on track to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, the BBC’s Alastair Lawson visits a safety pin factory in the capital, Dhaka, which employs children.
The electricity supply in the sweatshop in the crowded part of old Dhaka where Asma, 10, makes safety pins for a living is so dangerous that the foreman can only turn on the lights using a broomstick.
“If I use my hands I may get an electric shock,” he explains.
Asma is one of about 10 workers in the dingy factory – in the heart of the crowded and maze-like alleyways of this part of the city – who are under 14.
Sitting on a bench alongside her co-workers, Asma operates a powerful cutting device in the poorly-lit premises for up to 12 hours a day.
The safety pins are thinly cut and the machine she operates is cumbersome, heavy and dangerous.
Despite being blessed with nimble fingers and remarkable manual dexterity, if Asma makes one mistake she could easily lose a finger to the gigantic metal puncher she handles so professionally.
There is no first aid in the factory and no lunch break. None of the children know what happens to the pins one they have been made and none knows exactly who is employing them.
Like many other child workers in Bangladesh, she does not complain of her plight, remaining resolutely cheerful throughout the morning I spent with her.
THE EIGHT MILLENNIUM DEVELOPMENT GOALS
Eradicate extreme hunger and poverty
Achieve universal primary education
Promote gender equality and empower women
Reduce child mortality
Improve maternal health
Combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases
Ensure environmental sustainability
Develop a global partnership for development
Asma usually arrives at work at eight in the morning and leaves at eight in the evening. She often works six days a week and is paid about $2 a day.
“I used to study in school then all of a sudden my mum took me out and put me into work. I want to go to school but my mum said I would go again after Eid [the Muslim religious festival].
“So far that has not happened.”
Asma explains that as one of six children in her family she and her siblings have no choice but to work. Her father is a bicycle rickshaw puller and does not earn enough money to feed his family. Her mother runs the family’s home.
“I was not forced to work here,” she says shyly. “The trouble is that if I didn’t my family would not have enough money to buy vegetables and we cannot live only on rice.”
Asma is one of thousands of Bangladeshi children who work in the informal sector – which includes factories, workshops, home-based businesses and domestic employment.
She and others like her are are mostly outside the reach of labour controls, being isolated in the factories and households where they work.
This isolation, combined with the child’s dependency on their employer, lays the ground for abuse and exploitation for which they are so poorly protected.
To make matters even more complicated, many children in this sector do not have birth certificates, making it harder to validate their ages.
UN children’s fund spokesman Syeedul Milky says that Asma is part of the 1.3 million children in Bangladesh who work full-time to support their family.
Asma at work
Asma daily risks her fingers in poorly lit hazardous conditions
“For her work is just a way of living – she doesn’t know any other kind of life,” he said.
“I don’t think she understands the safety part of her work – neither she nor her workmates wear any safety gear and she seems totally unaware of the hazards.
“It’s very saddening to see her working in such terrible conditions, it’s also sad that she doesn’t know of any alternative life. She has now spent at least a quarter of her life doing this.”
The government of Bangladesh and Unicef are at pains to point out that 90% of children of primary school age in the country are in education even though 1.5 million have never enrolled in school.
They say 66,000 poor urban children are now attending a basic education programme run jointly by the two agencies.
Yet Mr Milky concedes that the numbers of children working in the country still remains so large that the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education for all is unlikely to be reached by 2015.
“The problem is that employers like to take on children because they can pay them less. The parents like children to work because their earnings can help pay household bills. It’s a vicious cycle from which it’s very hard for children to be extricated.”
The UN says that the most common reason for a child not to be enrolled in school is an inability to bear educational expenses. The second most commonly cited reason is the child’s participation in household economic activities.
“Until this problem is dealt with, child labour in this country is never going away,” Mr Milky says.