Making Time: Helping child workers save their earnings
- 27 September 2013
- From the section Magazine
Among the 3.5 million people packed into Dhaka's crowded slums are children who must work for a living. Some volunteer for a scheme to help fellow child workers save their earnings.
"People are boxed together in tiny little sheds with tin-covered roofs, it's noisy, smelly and there are there are few facilities," says Birgit Lundbak, a director at Save the Children in Bangladesh.
A black market thrives in the streets that wind their way through the makeshift city. Sparks fly from miniature workshops that sit adjacent to tea shops and tailors.
Local gangs act as unofficial landlords, and use "muscle men" to exert control over the residents, says Shamsul Alam, who specialises in children's welfare at the charity.
Young people make up a huge proportion of the workforce because they are so cheap to employ, he says. They carry out domestic work for wealthier families and operate lathes in motorcycle repair shops. Wages range from 20 taka (16p) up to 120 taka (£1) for more skilled labourers.
"There are no rules and regulations, no official working hours and no salary structure," says Alam. "There is no leave, no scope for education and no entertainment."
Most have no way of saving their earnings, either. "If they ask their employer to look after it, they will often withhold some of it to try and prevent the children leaving their jobs."
Holding on to the cash can pose even greater risks. Many of the children sleep rough and theft can be rife.
A legal ruling in Bangladesh means that children under 18 need an adult to co-sign an application for a bank account. "These children quite often don't live with their parents," says Lundbak. "[Some] have been kicked out from home and they're living in the street, this simply doesn't work for them."
In response to the problem, the charity created Chayabrikhkho in 2007 which allows the children to deposit their money, staffed by the children themselves on a voluntary basis.
"I think they see it as a learning opportunity, and they are helping their friends, so they're very proud to work there," says Lundbak.
Today the scheme holds accounts for about 750 street children, and similar projects across Bangladesh hold the savings of 13,000 young people in similar positions.
Lundbak wants to see Chayabrikhkho closed within a year, however. As successful as the volunteer projects have become, they can't hope to have the reach of a mainstream banking network. Save the Children is lobbying the Bangladeshi government to remove the age restriction on regular bank accounts and hopes the voluntary scheme will be absorbed by a bigger organisation.
There are 70 million children in Bangladesh, Lundbak says, of which seven million need to work on a regular basis. "In that sense, the support that the NGOs are providing is a drop in the ocean. We think this should be the business of regular banks."
As yet, it is unclear whether the government will respond to the calls, but the benefits to the children seem easy to discern.
"When they start depositing money, they start planning for the future," says Alam.
The scheme allows the children a degree of security and many of them invest their earnings once they have saved a sufficient amount.
"Some of them have bought cows for their parents who live outside Dhaka. Others are paying for education for their younger brother and sisters," he says. "They feel more confident because they have money to deal with their problems."
Video produced by Salman Saeed
There are more volunteering stories in the BBC News series Making Time