Children of the Black Dust

As she cleans the carbon rods from exhausted D-cell batteries, Marjina holds her young child on her lap and gently lulls her to sleep. Marjina migrated from the countryside to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh with her son and four daughters after her husband died. Now she toils every day in a workshop by the Buriganga River that recycles used batteries. Wiping tears from her eyes, Marjina tells me, "Regardless of how hard my children and I work, we accumulate more and more debt every month. I don’t know what to do. I have nothing that I can sell to pay off my debts.”

In my country, Bangladesh, labor comes cheap. On the outskirts of Dhaka, in village-like slums by the Buriganga river, dozens of workshops recycle the cast-off materials scavenged from garbage dumps. One of these unnamed workshops recycles dry-cell batteries. Day in and day out, women and children as young as six or seven break open discarded batteries with hammers in order to remove the recyclable carbon rods and tiny pieces of reusable metal. Depending upon the speed of their work, they earn between 30 and 50 Taka (40 to 70 US cents) per day. For a young child, it often takes more than a week to earn the equivalent of one US dollar.

Like Marjina, many women bring their children to work because there is simply no other place for them to stay. The environment in and around the workshops is loaded with carbon dust and other toxic material. Young children play in these polluted areas until they are tired and fall asleep, and most suffer from chest and eye infections.

Working conditions in these workshops are dismal and depressing. The makeshift cabins are often lit by one 60-watt bulb or a single small window. The hours are long; the work tedious; and everything— walls, ceilings and even the children’s faces — are covered with black carbon dust. Often only the whites of their eyes and red shiny lips are visible. The children constantly lick their lips to keep them wet, literally eating the dust particles.

The sad fact is that these children have to work to stay alive; if they don’t work, they don’t eat. But, that does not mean that they have to be exploited. In Bangladesh, with one of the largest collections of non-governmental organizations and international agencies in the world, it is shameful that millions of my countrymen live on the edge of extinction.

Not all child work is harmful. Some children actually choose to work, to develop new skills and move towards adulthood. Millions of children work part-time, combining work with school. Often, children's wages make the difference between destitution and survival for their families. Take away their jobs, and children go hungry, become homeless or are driven to worse paid, more dangerous jobs.

Harunur Rashid, a battery recycling plant owner replied, "When the government forbids employment of children, what happens to the families going hungry? The law itself is good, but you have to be practical."

Horrible as all this may sound, it is important to understand that for many children, earning a living or supplementing their family's income is a matter of survival. Slogans like “Stop Child Labor” embody romantic and ultimately impractical notions when it comes to places like Bangladesh. Instead of trying to abolish child labor by boycotting goods made by children, governments and civil societies should help create safer working environments for children, ensure that systems are in place to monitor abuse, and provide education, life-skill training and decent pay.

The Amsterdam Conference on Child Labour in 1997, which included young delegates, working children from Central and South America, West Africa and Asia, concluded, “Action should be taken to eradicate the most pernicious forms of child labor. But, in the absence of a real assault on the root causes of poverty, children should have the right to work. It is not work but exploitation in the workplace that should to be targeted.” Until that happens, children will be living and dying in the conditions you see here.

Who is Shehzad Noorani?

Shehzad Noorani has worked as a freelance documentary photographer since 1987. His special focus is people who live on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder. He has covered major crises resulting from wars and natural calamities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Iran and Bangladesh. Other assignments for agencies such as UNICEF have taken him to more than thirty countries. Noorani has also edited photographs for numerous publications. His work has appeared in Geo, Newsweek, The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian and The British Journal of Photography and has been exhibited widely around the world. For Daughters of Darkness, his project on the lives of commercial sex workers, he received the Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography Award in 2000.