Half-truths and agendas

 Published in: The Daily Star on December 16, 2016
Half-truths and agendas

I get apprehensive every time I discover a questionnaire on my table. Each questionnaire seems to be arriving with a specific agenda. Since I am a born sceptic, when I answer questions, I keep asking myself a ton of silly questions in return, so that my curiosity is handled and at the same time, I do justice to the 3-4 pages that await a response. If it’s a perception survey, the ranges kill me. For example, how do I answer a question like this: On a scale of 1-5, how would you rate corruption in your country? The answer would of course depend on the respondent’s ideological or political leanings. Therefore, neither do these surveys reflect the full or the bigger truth, nor do they serve any favours to the credibility of the research organisation.

A report titled “Child Labour and Education: A Survey of Slum Settlements in Dhaka” published by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), has surveyed 2,700 slum households and has found that 15 percent of children aged 6-14 were out of school and engaged in work. It has also revealed catchy infographics where 2 out of 3 girls reportedly work for the garment sector. In the graphics, the word “SALE” is tagged in red, indicating that the western brands are still sourcing apparel from Bangladesh, without doing due diligence.

My very first reaction to that report was simple; I wished they had done detailed homework with their text rather than focusing on presenting eye-catching one-liners. For a report that makes serious accusations about child labour persisting in the readymade garment sector, it actually seems to be underestimating the natural intelligence of the readers.

But I also must say that the report balances quite a few truths. On one hand, it talks about how much progress Bangladesh has made with human development factors, and on the other it also mentions that the children who are engaged in workplaces stand for resilience and that there is “something profoundly humbling about engaging with children on the wrong side of the opportunity divide.”

This week, out of that full report, I am only highlighting the specific places that actually refer to the children being employed in the RMG factories.

a)            The report claims that there is “a high work incidence among children aged 6-14, with an average rate of 15 percent reported across” their survey sites.

b)            The report claims, “The readymade garment sector appears to be a major employer of children, accounting for two-thirds of female child labour.”

c)            The report recommends “reviewing inspection arrangements for the garment sector to ensure that factories comply with national laws.”

d)            The report refers to the “high levels of child labour in the formal garment sector.” For girls, the sector is supposedly the largest employer.

e)            The report shares how the interviewers have extracted information from the children. Apparently, the respondents were given a choice between ‘sewing clothes’ (informal sector) versus ‘garment worker’ (formal sector). Apparently, there were also respondents who did not fully understand the distinction, the report duly notes. Without even the girls themselves understanding the difference, the report further claims that around two-thirds of girls report working in garment factories, with another 10 percent working in sewing or handicrafts. For girls, the RMG sector was by far the largest reported source of employment, whereas just 13 percent of the boys were working in the formal garment sector, and the rest were engaged in other activities like street vending, work in shops, employment by workshops, day labour, etc.

f)             The report acknowledges that there is an absence of “enterprise information.” How can a report be released with such a major lacking? If the purpose of the survey was to expose the bad practice of employing child labour in the RMG industry, then it should have had detailed information of the factories, and it should have revealed the total list of the factories surveyed, where 15 percent of the slum households are employed.

g)            The report admits that they had also not carried out a “detailed review of individual factories” which is also shocking. How can a report accuse a full sector of employing child labour and then again not review the enterprises with caution?

h)            The report assumes that the “the sheer scale of child employment in the sector and the links between small-scale factories and large-scale exporters make it highly probable that children in Dhaka are involved in export production.” As a manufacturer myself, I find it totally unacceptable that the report has actually, in absence of proper evidence, referred to a study by Stern, which was itself flawed as even the number of factories in that report was incorrect. We do not have 7000 factories. The report of Stern not only carried mistakes in their interactive maps, it also confused many stakeholders. I am also not sure whether the authors of the report are themselves clear about the “links” between the large- and the small-scale suppliers. In today’s day and time, post-2013, unauthorised subcontracting is suicidal for any manufacturer. And let me reiterate that days of irresponsible manufacturing are over.

i)             The report has also published one interview of a factory manager. One interview of just one factory manager (of who knows what kind of a factory) is totally unacceptable. No formal factory which exports will allow a child to operate. The report should have investigated fully into the factories’ profiles before drawing such a big conclusion about child labour in the RMG sector. What kinds of factories engage children? What are their sizes? Do they export at all? Instead of being careful with details, the report also irresponsibly presents graphics that circle factories under Accord, Alliance or National Action Plan, clearly trying to insinuate that these platforms also lack critical eye. This is definitely not the case. The report becomes particularly wounding when it states, “it stretches credibility to assume that supply chains for these brands do not include significant employment of child labourers.” Now, that indeed is an expensive assumption.

In all honesty, the report reads like a judgment and conveys its perception, without much data or original arguments. True, child labour persists, but to assume that the majority of them work in RMG factories, exporting to reputable brands, is stretching the activism agenda a bit too far. The sector is under critical review from many quarters anyway. Half-truths like this report can only bring it to the global map of shame, yet once again. And this is certainly neither desirable nor acceptable to stakeholders who care and invest in real lives and real people.