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Cablegate: Bangladesh Shrimp Sector - Child Labor Present but Not

VZCZCXRO4311
RR RUEHBI RUEHCI
DE RUEHKA #0618/01 1610917
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 090917Z JUN 08
FM AMEMBASSY DHAKA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 6871
INFO RHEHAAA/WHITE HOUSE WASHINGTON DC
RUEHC/DEPT OF LABOR WASHDC
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC
RUEHBK/AMEMBASSY BANGKOK 8462
RUEHLM/AMEMBASSY COLOMBO 8481
RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD 2210
RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU 9715
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI 0682
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO 1184
RUEHCI/AMCONSUL KOLKATA 1326
RUEHBI/AMCONSUL MUMBAI 0321
RUEHCG/AMCONSUL CHENNAI 0966

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 DHAKA 000618

SIPDIS

WHITE HOUSE FOR USTR: AARON ROSENBERG, MEREDETH SANDLER, ADINA
ADLER
DEPARTMENT OF LABOR FOR ILAB: TIMOTHY WEDDING, RACHEL RIGBY,
JENNIFER PIORKOWSKI
DEPT FOR: USAID, G/TIP, G, DRL, IWI, PRM, SCA/RA, SCA/PB, EA

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: ELAB EAGR ETRD SOCI PGOV KWMN BG
SUBJECT: BANGLADESH SHRIMP SECTOR - CHILD LABOR PRESENT BUT NOT
PERVASIVE

REF: DHAKA 00584

SUMMARY
-------

1. (SBU) Recent Embassy visits to shrimp processing factories in
southwestern and southeastern Bangladesh revealed cases of child
labor in a handful of factories. Econoff and Econ Specialist
visited nine shrimp processing factories in Bangladesh's Khulna
region, four in Cox's Bazaar, and five in Chittagong. Our assessment
is that the shrimp processing industry is aware of prohibitions
against the use of child labor and is generally free of child labor.
Some factories, however, continue to employ child workers through
contractors. Overall, shrimp industry groups are working with the
Government of Bangladesh to eradicate child labor in shrimp
processing. END SUMMARY.

2. (SBU) In an April 23 report (The True Cost of Shrimp) on the
shrimp industry in Bangladesh and Thailand the American Center for
International Labor Solidarity (ACILS, also known as the Solidarity
Center) alleged widespread use of child labor and other labor abuses
in Bangladesh's shrimp processing sector. Government officials and
industry representatives have told us privately abuses occurred in
the past but said steps were being taken to eradicate child labor
from shrimp processing. Publicly, government and industry have
denied the charges made in the April 23 report, which largely
restates claims made in the 2007 Generalized System of Preferences
petition filed by the AFL-CIO with the US Trade Representative.


UNANNOUNCED VISITS: MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
-------------------------------------------

3. (SBU) Econoff and Econ Specialist conducted unannounced visits
at nine factories in Bangladesh's Khulna region in May to assess
labor conditions, particularly use of child labor in the shrimp
sector. Seven of the nine factories visited are located in Khulna's
main shrimp processing quarter known as Char Rupsha, a densely
concentrated area of factories located 30 minutes from Khulna city.
At the first factory, six or seven boys who appeared to be under age
14 carried cardboard and paper bundles to and from a print shop that
produced shrimp packaging. A group of women removing shrimp heads
sat on a factory floor away from the bulk of the processing, while
young children played or slept beside them. One or two slightly
older girls appeared to be casually assisting their mothers.
Adolescent girls (between 14 and 18) appeared to be part of this
female working group. (NOTE: per local law, workers under age 14 are
considered child labor, while those 14-18 are adolescent and able to
do non-hazardous work. The informal and agricultural sectors are
exempted from the labor law.)

4. (SBU) In the main factory area at least two children worked in a
processing line. The floor manager tried to block Econoff's efforts
to photograph one boy at work. The floor manager instructed the boy
to move to a different room. Later, the floor manager quietly told
the LES that "When foreigners visit, it causes problems for these
kids." (COMMENT: Presumably this means they have to hide, or are
fired.) We observed three to four children working in the processing
line, and about a dozen apparently adolescent workers elsewhere in
the factory. Along a narrow street outside the factory at least two
groups of boys who said they worked as day laborers were moving ice
and shrimp. At first shying away from the camera, they later
gathered around to see their pictures on the digital screen.

5. (SBU) At one of the largest factories there was a delay at the
gate before officials allowed in Embassy staff. Factory officials
then made Econoff and Econ Specialist wait several minutes in an
empty office. When we explained the purpose of our call, the
factory manager said there was a problem and began a variety of
delay tactics. Eventually Econ Specialist spoke with the factory
owner, who claimed angrily that non-governmental organizations were
targeting him and had photographed children outside his gate,
falsely identifying them as workers in his factory. Eventually
officials allowed us to tour the factory. We observed no children.

DHAKA 00000618 002 OF 004


In a meeting with factory workers later, they claimed that while we
were delayed child workers were rounded up and hidden.

6. (SBU) We observed no child labor at the other six Khulna
factories visited. Several of the factories were transparent and
welcoming; one gate featured a hand-made sign in the local language
stating no one under age 18 should apply for work. Nearly all the
factories had clean bathrooms, gender segregated changing areas,
hand-washing stations with chlorinated water, and foot bath systems
at entry and exit points. Most workers wore lab-coats, boots, and
many wore gloves and/or face masks. Some workers (mostly those
working in the walk-in freezers) were equipped with warm parkas.
Laboratories appeared to be present at most facilities as well. The
general standards of cleanliness within the formal sector seemed
quite high. Econoff confirmed the Solidarity Center's finding that
some informal processing (in unhygienic facilities) is also
occurring in the vicinity of the factories, although producers
claimed it was export rejected shrimp, designated for the domestic
market.


WORKERS LIVE WITH HARSH REALITIES
--------------- ------------------

7. (SBU) ACILS organized a group of approximately 30 workers (men,
women and children) to meet with Embassy staff at the ACILS' Khulna
office. Among the group, 14 were under age 14, and six were between
the ages of 14 and 18. The workers said they had taken vacation time
to attend the meeting. ACILS provided each worker some compensation
for coming to the meeting. Some appeared to have been coached as to
what to say. Seven workers between the ages of 8 and 12 credibly
claimed to have worked in shrimp processing factories: they named
two labor contractors who had arranged for them to work in four
factories. Two child workers said they worked at the factories
where we directly observed children at work. Adult workers at this
meeting complained of 12-hour work days for which managers only
allow them to claim eight hours worked.


SHRIMP PROCESSING PATTERNS CONSISTENT NATION-WIDE
------------------ ------------------------------

8. (SBU) The Solidarity Center report was based entirely on data
collected from the Khulna shrimp processing factories. For a more
comprehensive perspective, the Embassy conducted additional surveys
in the south-east beach town of Cox's Bazaar, and the industrial
port city of Chittagong. In each location, only one factory was
observed to have apparent child workers.

9. (SBU) Econoff visited four shrimp processing factories on the
outskirts of Cox's Bazaar town. Two child laborers were directly
observed at one factory immediately on entering the factory gate.
After a delay of 15 minutes (during which we observed the children
being shooed away) Econoff was giving a limited tour. (COMMENT: We
believe child workers were removed to a separate part of the factory
to which we were not given access. END COMMENT.) The other three
factory owners were wary but welcoming; all expressed a clear
understanding of the laws against child labor. Noting the presence
of a worker complaint box, Econoff asked about complaints received;
the factory claimed the only complaint related to leaking gum boots.
They characterized their industry as suffering from limited supplies
of shrimp, pointing to one factory that had shut down recently.

10. (SBU) Econoff visited five shrimp processing factories in
Chittagong. Due to supply limits, one had refocused on whitefish
processing for export to the Middle-East. Another factory (newly
expanded) was in the process of becoming operational. Emboff
observed child workers at one large factory. The site manager
claimed that one child (wearing gum boots, and appearing to be a
worker) was there to deliver rice to her mother. When a group of
three or four apparently young workers were observed running out of
a room, the manager lamely explained they were running because they
had to use the toilet.


DHAKA 00000618 003 OF 004

NETTING OF SHRIMP LARVAE FROM THE SEA, SHRIMP FARMING, AND
HATCHERIES
--------------------------------
------------------------------------

11. (SBU) At the Cox's Bazaar beach, dozens of fishermen dotted the
beach collecting shrimp larvae directly from the sea with fine mesh
nets set in the surf. Through the moon-lit night and into the
morning, teams of men, youths and children huddled over plastic
buckets with flashlights sorting shrimp larvae from buckets of
concentrated microfauna. By isolating thousands of larvae, a worker
can earn as much as 300 hundred taka a night (about $4). The
children admitted they would rather go to school, but their elders
pointed out that they had to eat. Those who supported younger
family members attending school questioned the utility of education,
if the only way for their siblings to earn in the future would be
collecting shrimp larvae. This pattern of child work in the
informal sector is not covered under Bangladesh's labor laws; the
use of fine mesh nets is, however, illegal for environmental reasons
(but rarely enforced). The practice of fine mesh netting for shrimp
larvae has also been observed in the Sundarbans protected forest
area.

12. (SBU) Embassy representatives also visited the Shatkira region
near Khulna, a hub for freshwater shrimp farming. An adult farm
worker said that at the pond where he was employed the farm owner's
children and other local children may assist during the busy periods
which is legal under Bangladesh's laws. At a small shrimp hatchery
(21 tanks) small shrimp larvae are grown in brine water to a size
that they can be sold to shrimp farmers for transfer to freshwater
ponds. Econoff saw six young men ranging in age from about 18 to 30
who ran the operations. The workers monitored the chemical
composition of each tank and prepared a special protein shake for
the shrimp. This work appeared technically sophisticated, and the
men claimed there was no scope for child worker involvement.


INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION WORRIED
----------------------------

13. (SBU) In meetings with the Embassy, Bangladesh Frozen Foods
Exporters Association (BFFEA) officials voiced concern about the
ACILS report, which they described as inaccurate and claimed had
resulted in queries from international buyers. They highlighted the
importance of the industry as a source of employment, particularly
for women, and as a source of revenue for aquaculture farmers in the
impoverished Khulna region. Acknowledging past problems with child
labor in shrimp processing factories, they claimed to be taking
steps to eliminate child labor that the ACILS report ignored.


COMMENT
-------

14. (SBU) Our surveys of the shrimp processing industry in
Bangladesh indicate that claims of child labor in the shrimp
processing factories have some basis but that child labor is not a
pervasive characteristic in the industry. The Government of
Bangladesh is making efforts on the shrimp sector with renewed
intensity. On May 15-16, a delegation led by the Commerce and
Fisheries and Livestock Secretaries visited Khulna to conduct
inspections and outreach. They were accompanied by an EU diplomat,
and the ACILS director for Bangladesh (who reports that hardly any
workers were seen by the delegation.) On May 17, the USAID country
director addressed a seminar on improving the shrimp sector. On May
19, DRL DAS Barks-Ruggles, the Ambassador and USAID Mission Director
Rollins attended an informal lunch hosted by the Commerce Advisor
for candid discussions on the shrimp sector (REFTEL).

15. (SBU) We are informed (by the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington)
that the GOB has initiated case actions against four shrimp
processing companies in Khulna. The Embassy will follow up for more
information. Bangladesh's Shrimp Foundation told the Embassy that a

DHAKA 00000618 004 OF 004


delegation from the GOB and shrimp industry associations will be
visiting Washington in mid-June to meet USG officials and buyers
groups to present their plans to improve the sector.

MORIARTY

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