Phasing out child labor in the garment industry and providing education for ex-workers

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers’ and Exporters’ Association (BGMEA), in collaboration with the International Labor Organization (ILO) and UNICEF, developed the Child Labor Project to eliminate child labor in the 2,500 member factories, and to provide an alternative to former child laborers in the form of an education program. In 1995, the BGMEA, ILO, and UNICEF entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to serve as a basis for the implementation of the Child Labor Project, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The first component of the Child Labor Project was the provision of three years of informal education for former child workers with the goal of mainstreaming them into the formal Bangladeshi educational system. Through the course of the project, UNICEF and two non-governmental organizations created 353 schools for this in which over 9,740 children had enrolled before May 1998. The BGMEA also undertook to offer employment to qualified family members, as well as providing them with access to micro-credit systems to increase their incomes and reduce their dependency on wages earned by child workers.

The second part of the project, the monitoring and verification system, was established to gain an understanding of the extent to which child labor was used in Bangladeshi garment factories and to monitor progress toward the elimination of the practice. The ILO trained inspectors to advise factory owners and managers about the benefits of the Project and the need to end child labor. Since the inspectors were not trained as “police” force, their factory visits engendered some level of trust between the inspectors and factory owners. The inspectors focused solely on the use of child labor and did not address working conditions, wages, or other employment issues. During its first survey in 1995, monitoring teams visited about 2,100 factories and found that child labor was being used in approximately 42.5% of garment factories. By 2000, it fell to 4.5%. The goals of the project also included ensuring that former child workers were able to return to their positions in the garment industry once they reached 14 years of age.

The success of the Child Labor Project in Bangladesh has led to the implementation of modified versions of this project by the ILO in Pakistan, East Asia, Africa, and Central America. Similar to the BGMEA version, the new applications of the project all combine social protection programs for former child workers and their families which are implemented by local NGOs with a monitoring system run by the ILO. The new projects focus specifically on the coffee and commercial agricultural industries. The lessons learned by the organizations involved in the Bangladeshi project have led to the elimination of the monthly stipend payment for ex-child workers because of the cost involved and the related lack of sustainability of that component of the project. Instead, they receive access to vocational training and micro-credit for their families.

The Child Labor Project in Bangladesh faced a couple of challenges in its implementation. First, once children reach age 14, they can legally work and to encourage them to stay in school there was a need to continue providing a stipend. This increased the costs of the project questions arose about the sustainability of such an approach. Another important consideration in implementing this type of project is the importance of the role played by employers in this process. The BGMEA and ILO stressed the significance of having employers’ cooperation in order to develop a successful and sustainable project. A third, and related, consideration is the pressure that the Bangladeshi garment industry was facing as a result of a bill proposed by Senator Tom Harkin in the U.S. Senate in 1993. The bill proposed a ban on imports from countries that used child labor at any stage of production. While it did not pass, the resulting negative publicity and the threat of a ban on selling its garments in the U.S. played a part in the industry’s willingness to cooperate with the project.


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