Southeast Asia | Growing pains: child labor on the rise as Myanmar develops
Despite child labor laws that have been in existence since 1951, increasing numbers of children are working in the country's famous teahouses. Photo: Carole Oudot
Despite child labor laws that have been in existence since 1951, increasing numbers of children are working in the country's famous teahouses. Photo: Carole Oudot

Growing pains: child labor on the rise as Myanmar develops

Rural poverty and weak education are driving children to seek work in the cities. Exploitation is rife and a trafficking industry has sprung up.

January 11, 2017 3:57 PM (UTC+8)

As Myanmar enjoys economic growth, rural poverty and a weak education system are driving children to look for work in the country’s big cities. It’s a form of migration that has almost become a new norm.

Every night, after office hours, Yangon becomes paralyzed with traffic for at least two hours. Barefoot, breathing in the fumes, Ko Myint, 7, strolls between the lines of stuck cars, used to it all. The tiny boy sells flowers, finding few customers among the wary drivers and passengers. Other children sell cold drinks, cigarettes, newspapers and betel nuts, which many taxi drivers chew to fight exhaustion. Half vendors, half beggars, the children barely make enough money to keep from starving, but this economic drain cuts their schooling drastically short.

“They come from very poor families from the outskirts of Yangon”, explains Sai Kaung Kham, from the local association Htwe La May, which translates as “helping hands”. “The parents have to send them to work to make ends meet. They end up in the street and do what they have to do to survive.”

A law impossible to enforce

After decades of military rule in Myanmar, industry remains underdeveloped and agriculture the dominant sector, representing 38% of the country’s GDP and employing more than 70% of the labor force. Fragile agriculture, land confiscations by the army and environmental disasters such as floods force farmers to leave. They then tour the country, working as casual laborers on other farms or construction sites, or send their kids to find work in the cities.

When visiting remote areas to expand his education project, My Mobile Education, Tim Aye-Hardy discovered that “almost all the kids above 10 were already gone.” The exodus he describes is, alas, very hard to measure, since statistics are nonexistent.

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Children at work in Yangon. Photo: Carole Oudot

According to Myanmar’s Shops and Establishments Act, and its Factories Act, both of which were introduced in 1951, it is prohibited for children under 14 to work. But the practice has been going on for so long that it has become “culturally accepted”, according to Aye-Hardy, who was born and raised in Myanmar then lived in the United States for 25 years before returning to the country in 2012 as it was on the cusp of opening up. Since then, he believes, the phenomenon of child workers in cities has increased. He points to Myanmar’s famous tea shops as a case in point. “Restaurants owner don’t even need to bribe the labor inspectors, since there are only two or three only for each district,” he says. “It is simply impossible to enforce the law.”

The only choice

Ko Maung Maung has just turned 15. He arrived in Yangon four months ago from a village in rural Irrawaddy division. The shy teenager, whose face is covered with traditional thanaka paste, explains that he dropped out of school because he heard about a job at a tea shop in Yangon — from two other employees originating from the same village. This is often how it begins. “Some owners are from the same region,” says Aye-Hardy. “When they come to set up a tea shop they bring kids from their community. Parents trust them because they know them. Second way is through relatives who are already working.”

The practice, Aye-Hardy states, quickly turns into a child trafficking business. “Owners call a broker, they ask for some kids. The brokers know people in different villages, they get some sort of broker fees.”

“The parents have to send them to work to make ends meet. They end up in the street and do what they have to do to survive”

According to Myanmar’s latest census data, from 2014, 1.6 million — or 21% — of children aged between 10 and 17, work. Most likely this is an underestimation. Young boys work mainly as employees in hotels and restaurants, while girls are mostly hired as housekeepers, a dangerous line of work where abuse cases are not rare. With the country’s opening up, demand for cheap labor has soared as Yangon turned into a giant construction site and new hotels and restaurants multiplied.

However inflation, skyrocketing rents and a general increase in living costs have forced many establishments to rely on children. As Aye-Hardy explains, “the owners are taking advantage of these kids, not paying them properly and not having proper working hours. They barely make a dollar a day and earn around 30,000 kyats (US$22) a month. But child labor is their best option so far — the money they make is sent back to their parents. What other choice do they have?”

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