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Pakistan's Glass Bangle Industry Built On Child Labor

by Zofeen Ebrahim

Children and the Global Sweatshop
(IPS) NEW DELHI -- Hunched over the flame, a bangle in one hand and a long, thin glass stick in the other, Shumaila works on the floor of a back room in a small, two-room house. With the doors and windows closed, the heat is stifling, but the 15-year-old girl concentrates on etching floral patterns on the glass bangles.

"I'm not very good with 'murai' (decorating the bangles), not like my sisters who have been at it for much longer," she told IPS. Shumaila decorates six dozen bangles a day, which fetches her about 16 rupees (30 U.S. cents).

It adds to the family kitty, and an elder sister said they are able to earn just under $13 a week. The effort has already taken a toll of young Shumaila, who has been part of the bangle-making trade for four years now.

"The work is fine, although I get tired after sitting in one position for too long, but it's the heat that makes me dizzy. It burns my eyes." Pointing to burn marks on her fingers, she said: "For these I put 'mehndi' (henna) and that eases the pain."

She attended school until the 5th standard, then was drafted into the trade to help feed the family -- she has eight siblings. "We start work at nine in the morning and work till one, when we break for lunch," she said. "Then we start again at four and work till ten."

In the evening, however, she takes an hour off to watch Indian soap operas on the Star Plus television channel. "We have cable at home," she says with pride. That is one among few concessions. "I'm not allowed to go out - my brothers don't let me. But I can visit friends at their home. When I was young we played catch. I like to play with the jump rope too."

There is little doubt that Pakistan's glass bangle industry exploits children. Jiwan Das, country program manager for Save the Children UK, a Britain-based international children's charity, said that while the work itself is not life-threatening, it is hazardous.

"It takes place in confined spaces; is conducted in an unhealthy environment with exposure to dangerous substances; involves working in difficult conditions for long hours; involves residing at the site of the work with little personal free time and offers no form of preliminary safety training," he said.

A study conducted by Save the Children pointed out that "eradication of this labor is not a viable option unless new avenues and opportunities are created." One impediment is that there are few work alternatives and few pay as much.

Saima, now 22 and a matriculate, started work at the age of seven. "I can teach at a local school, and of course it is more appealing, but the wages are low," she said.

Indeed, 13-year-old Munir, a young bangle cutter, is saving up his earnings to buy a bicycle. "I'll be the first one in my community to have a bicycle and that too from my own money," he said excitedly. He has already collected $25 and needs another eight before he can pick out a bicycle for himself.

The youngster is skilled at what he does. In a glass bangle-making factory in Hyderabad he cuts the long, cylindrical glass spring with a cutting file into batches of 300, each called a 'tora'.

That is when the bangles are ready for 'sadai' (aligning the cut in the bangle by placing it over a flame) and 'jorai' (welding the bangle together). Fuel for the flame is provided by either natural gas or kerosene oil and, as seen from Shumaila's working conditions, fans cannot be used.

In the closed, unventilated rooms where the delicate work is done, children are the mainstays of the industry, working while under the care of their parents. The current wage for 'sadai' and 'jorai' is three and five cents per batch of 300 respectively. In a day, an individual may complete between 25 and 35 batches.

"In order to carry out the task one must sit in a crouched position for long hours and be exposed to an open flame," said Abdul Ghaffar Shirani, coordinator with Pak Social Welfare, a community-based organization focusing on child labor. "The cuts in the bangles being small and the glare of the open flame causes eye strain, while the crouching position can cause chronic backache and pain in the joints."

Yet at work children like Shumaila and Munir display both patience and skill. When IPS met Munir he had masking tape wrapped around a forefinger where glass had cut him -- it is a routine hazard. He begins work at seven in the morning -- "It takes me an hour by bus to get to work" -- and gets off by three or four in the afternoon.

Once home, he sleeps off the day's toil, awakes to eat and then goes back to sleep. "I take two days off in a month," he said, when asked about his free time. Munir has few illusions and fewer dreams of what he wants to be: "I'll probably stick to doing what I'm doing. It's easy, I've learned it well since I started two years back and am at home with the people I work with." And school? "I don't want to (attend)," he insisted.

The economic reality, as the Save the Children study concluded, is that "poverty leaves few options for the family other than for the children to lend a hand in income generation." Reliable figures were difficult to come by, but the study found that the average monthly household income for families whose children are involved in the industry is $74, of which two-thirds is generated by glass bangle work.

As for these children who have no option but to trade their childhood for long hours and backbreaking work, they get less than a dollar a month to spend on themselves.

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Albion Monitor January 14, 2004 (

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