From Factories to Teashops, Child Labor a ‘Tradition’ in Burma

A child sells brooms in Rangoon. (Photo: Aung Thet Wine / The Irrawaddy)

Child servers are a common sight at the average teashop or restaurant in Burma, where often the underage employees are working at the expense of schooling.

Burmese children have long been exploited as part of labor pools both at home and abroad, working for a pittance and receiving few social protections, labor activists and community leaders say.

“It is a serious issue to take into consideration,” said Thet Thet Aung, a leading labor activist from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society.

“We have seen that many young employees from the age of 15 to 18 in the industrial sector are being forced to work like adult employees,” she added.

Since last year, Thet Thet Aung said she and the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society have provided support to labor protests at factories where more than 90 percent of the workers are women, with young girls representing the highest number.

“However, our efforts have not yet reached children who are working at worksites other than factories.”

Protection for child laborers at smaller-scale local businesses is sorely lacking, the activist said.

The Rangoon office of Save the Children, an international NGO focused on the issue of childlabor, employs a “community-based child protection system” to address the issue in Burma, according to the organization’s senior protection advisor Ma Thanda Kyaw. That includes encouraging parents to keep their children in school and providing assistance, in the form of school supplies and uniforms, to those families that cannot afford them.

In cities and villages across Burma, child workers at local commercial enterprises such as teashops or restaurants are often preferred by owners.

“The shop will only pick the younger one if a 10-year-old boy and a 20-year-old male apply for a job at the teashops,” said Hsu Hnget, a writer in Mandalay, adding that children were particularly vulnerable to exploitation as cheap labor.

Hsu Hnget said the practice had become so deeply rooted in society that it had become a “tradition.”

Children of both sexes are often sent to Burma’s big cities to work, sometimes forced by their own parents.

From Rangoon to Mandalay to Myitkyina, “in order to support my family” is a common refrain from these sons and daughters when asked why they are working instead of studying.

“I have been working here for a couple of years to support my mom, as my parents are divorced,” a skinny 11-year-old girl working at a local restaurant in Myitkyina told The Irrawaddy when asked why she wasn’t in school.

A 13-year-old boy from Shwebo Township, who works at a teashop in Mandalay, said he had only completed his studies through the fourth grade and started working at the teashop a year ago.

“It’s sad to see that some of the children working at those shops are wearing their school uniform,” Hsu Hnget said.

And then there are underage domestic workers, who toil out of public sight and away from the sweatshops that often get most of the public attention.

On Wednesday, the International Labor Organization (ILO) marked World Day Against ChildLabor by reporting that an estimated 10.5 million children worldwide under the age of 15 are being forced to work as domestic laborers, where they receive little or no pay.

In Burma, laws regulating childlabor exist, but few underage workers benefit from protections stipulated in the legislation. It is illegal to employ children less than 15 of age, and under the colonial-era Factory Act, employees from 15 to 18 years old are allowed to work no more than four hours a day, but youth laborers are routinely forced to work more than the statutorily mandated limit.

“Children who are forced to work as cheap labor is the result of unequally developed social and economic sectors,” Hsu Hnget said.

To eliminate the scourge of childlabor, Save the Children recommends focusing on making education more accessible and affordable for Burma’s poorest. It also urges the government to better monitor compliance to labor laws, and aggressively prosecute employers who violate them.

Without such efforts, deeply entrenched poverty will continue to force children out of the classroom and into the workforce, Thet Thet Aung said, casting a shadow over Burma’s much-praised reforms of the last two years.

“It is because the grassroots community is not benefiting from the current political changes made by the government,” she said.

4 Responses to From Factories to Teashops, Child Labor a ‘Tradition’ in Burma

  1. The boy in the picture is supposed to be in school class, not on the street if the government trying serious for the kids.

    • On the other hand, I heard that there are private international schools in Rangoon and Mandalay, where tuition fees are over 5,000 US$ per year.
      A country with an obscenely high Gini coefficient, and its getting worse everyday.
      May the 37 nats of Mt. Popa punish all these blood-sucking vampires who are making these innocent poor children suffer so much!

  2. Maung Lu Aye ( Law ) R.A.S.U 1976

    ILO Prohibited. Internal law also Prohibited. Let’s pretend to see as your son or Nephew or Grandson, the Boy in the Picture. You wil have an Heartache. Suppose to be in the Class Room Learning, the Boy is Struggling like an Adult. The So-called Democratic to be Govt. need A Solution for the GrassRoots/Low Income Families who are having Hand to Mouth daily. The Value of A Human Being is Unlimited, like Pearls & Rubies. He/She can becomes a Doctor or An Engineer or A Lawyer or Even The President of Burma. Please try to be Nice & Respect to the Youngster as the Global Community is Changing in Every Seconds.

  3. This picture of child street vendor and children in similar or worse conditions break my heart. All thanks go to the Burmese military who destroyed the country’s economy, trade, education and health systems and has driven its people to abject poverty and highest illiteracy since March, 1962 and continues to do so unashamedly and unabated up to this day.

    Parents are unable to feed themselves and their children. Unwillingly and with heavy heart, they are compelled to send their children out to work as childlabor, street vendors and hawkers in the hope that their children would earn enough to at least feed themselves. The Burmese military, their cronies and many small and big private businesses benefit from this cheap form of labor, directly or indirectly.

    Those who grew up in post-independence Burma and stayed on in the country at least until March, 1962 and if they are still alive, would bear witness to the fact that from farmers to factory owners, teachers to traders, politicians to preachers, sweepers to shopkeepers, artists to architects, clerks to CEO’s, all of them enjoyed good life in Golden Burma until March, 1962. Parents sent their children to good schools in villages, towns and cities as they did not have to worry about side or extra income by forcing their school age children to work. Children received quality education. Literacy in the country was highest or one of the highest in South East Asia or Asia.

    At least two or more generations of Burmese children’s future were destroyed, their hopes and aspirations were expunged and their dreams were shattered by the military. These children were supposed to be in schools in tidy school uniform, learning from the books. They are supposed be in playgrounds, having fun time as a child. All this and many more is their birthright in a country so rich in natural resources. Ahhhh, unfortunately it hasn’t been so since March, 1962. Like this child in the picture, millions of them are vending in the streets walking on searing sidewalks and blactop without footwear, instead of reading out from the books to their teachers in classrooms, they holler out vendors calls for their goods. Worse yet, tens of thousands work in the sun at construction sites, carrying bricks on their heads, breaking stones for gravel for road construction and the list goes on.

    On the other hand, children of the military, government officials and authorities, ministers, their cronies and business partners go to expensive international schools in the country and in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jakarta, Tokyo and Hong Kong. They live in luxury apartments and villas, riding fancy and flashy cars, having fun with boys and girls of the elite there, throwing expensive birthday parties and jet setting between Burma and countries where they are having fun.

    What a stark contrast!

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