A few days ago, a couple boys ate lunch this us at Taize. Brother Frank was asking them about their lives at home and what they did during the day. They told us that they were just wandering around during the day and then they go to work at night. "Where do you work?" they were asked. "Boro bazaar, at the hotel" they responded. "We make rooti!" These two young boys maybe 9 or 10 years old, work the night shift at a small restaurant in the city making flatbread. They work from 11pm until dawn making bread and what is their wage you might ask?
"50 Taka per night"... 50 Taka!
An entire nights work, and these boys receive less than a dollar. Something here needs to change. Children who should be going to school should not be working like slaves for 50 Taka, nor should they be forced to work the night shift, but they do, and they have little choice.
I wish I had the life story of each of those boys. I don't know if both their parents are alive, working or sick. I don't know how big their families are, or where they live. But I do know that they are desperately poor and like many young boys here in Bangladesh, they look for work not because it's fun, but because it puts rice in their stomachs. I do not blame these boys for working, but the system needs to change. The problem is that it is illegal. It is illegal, and not monitored. Hungry children, starving because their parents cannot find work, can be hired for virtually nothing, because virtually nothing is still something; and something is better than nothing. These children often eat only one meal a day at home, and a hungry person is a desperate person. Being a slave and being alive is better than the alternative; starvation. Now this analysis of the problem is stark, and possibly slightly exaggerated, but the problem is real. And it gets no easier when those people hiring the children have no ethical qualms about child labour, or more to the point, they know that there are so many others doing it, that they do not fear breaking the law.
The solution to the problem is complex. Many of these children would not be going to school if they weren't working, they would be out doing something else to make money. Many boys collect recycled paper and waste to sell as recycling in the markets. But while many boys go off to work, their fathers sit at home, lazing around and gossiping, not by choice, but because they cannot find work. Who would hire an adult and have to pay them more, when you could hire an obedient child?
Child labour is not a problem that will disappear quickly in Bangladesh. Not that North Americans and Europeans were always stellar at not hiring children either, it will take time, and it will need some outside help. But it is a problem, and a problem that needs to be addressed.
To finish off our conversation. Brother Frank asked the boys if foreigners were allowed to make rooti. The answer was unequivocally "no". Nor were indigenous people, elderly or overweight people eligible for the job. Apparently, here in Mymensingh, only boys are allowed to make rooti.