‘The Problem of Child Labor Originates in Rural Areas’

By The Irrawaddy 11 April 2015

On this week’s edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, Tin Maung Maung Aye discusses his efforts to educate Burma’s child laborers through his Myanmar Mobile Education Project. This is a transcript of the second part of the discussions; the first part was published last week.

Aung Zaw: This week we will continue the discussion with Ko Tin Maung Maung Aye about his Myanmar Mobile Education Project, which we discussed last week. I am Irrawaddy Magazine Editor Aung Zaw.

AZ: Would you explain to me what the situation is regarding child labor laws in Myanmar?

Tin Maung Maung Aye: As far as I know, we only have the 1951 Factories Act in Myanmar. Under that law, children under 13 are not allowed to work. And children above 13 can work only for limited hours. As far as I know, they are not allowed to work for more than four hours.

Even so, they might need doctor’s recommendation to do certain kind of jobs. When it comes to child labor, the problem goes beyond their education. There are many causes leading to child labor—especially financial hardship and lack of job opportunities and schools at rural areas. Children therefore have to come to towns and do odd-jobs at teashops and restaurants to support their parents. It is not that problem of child labor begins in Yangon and Mandalay, but it originates in rural areas. It is important that rural villages get developed and there are schools there and their parents make a comfortable living.

The situation is worse now because of confiscation of land and fishing lakes by companies. Previously, locals could do farming at those lands and catch fish at those lakes freely at any time. Now, those places are gone and their livelihood is taken away. So, families have to send their children to towns [to find work]. So, these are the root causes of child labor.

AZ: So, forced confiscation of land by the government, cronies and the army is one of the main factors driving child labor?

TMMA: Regardless of the reasons that are driving farmland confiscation, no matter if they are confiscated directly or indirectly, those lands have been a source of livelihood for rural people. And when this source of livelihood is taken away, they have to think about how to sustain their lives. And when they think about sustaining their lives, the question of how to fill their stomachs will come first anyway. They won’t think about sending their children to school.

AZ: So, how many child laborers are involved in such internal migration? Is there any figure on the number of child laborers?

TMMA:  I am sure there is no exact figure. We can perhaps estimate the number of children working at restaurants and teashops since they are working under our eyes. But then, there are many children working inside homes. There may be between 1 million to 2 million of them in total.

AZ: I am talking about Myanmar alone. There are many children who have left for Thailand and the border.

TMMA: I remember that Myanmar is ranked 9th or 10th in the number of child laborers in the world.

AZ:  Do you see anything that the government has done, like law enforcement or adoption of a policy, that is working for the future and education of those children?

TMMA: I’ve met with the International Labor Organization (ILO) officials two times. As far as I know, ILO and the Labor Ministry are working together to set a minimum age of child workers in accordance with ILO conventions.

AZ: So, what is the minimum age for a child to work?

TMMA: In developed countries, those under 16 are not allowed to work. But ILO relaxed the restriction in developing countries like Myanmar, for example the minimum age may be 14 or 15. The convention sets the age at which children complete primary education as the minimum age of child workers. The problem in Myanmar is that the age at which children complete primary education is one year younger than the minimum age. So, there is one year’s gap. ILO is trying to fix this in coordination with the government.

I hear that Parliament is also trying to enact a law in accordance with ILO conventions. My view is that such a law is important. But how to enforce existing laws is more important. If the 1951 Factories Act is to be enforced, children would not have to work long hours. Then if we take a look from the point of view of shop owners, it is not their fault that there is child labor. It is neither the fault of the parents. This problem needs to be addressed by all the concerned parties in collaboration; otherwise it will not be solved.

AZ: Then, have parliamentarians discussed this issue? Since Parliament said it will represent the voices of the people.

TMMA: As far as I know, it has not been debated in Parliament yet. I have talked with two or three lawmakers about the issue. We discussed how to lobby against child labor at the parliament. We are trying to highlight this issue.

AZ: Here, I’d like you discuss a related issue—the trafficking of children. Apart from internal migration, how many trafficked children are there? Because there are many cases of children trafficking in Cambodia and Vietnam; what about Myanmar?

TMMA: In Myanmar, data has never been collected specifically on this issue. ILO may have statistics, but it is just an estimate. Talking of internal migration, it is a subtle problem. Looking at the child labor issue, some children are brought to towns by middlemen. We have yet to discuss if this can be labeled as trafficking or not.

Especially, most of the children laborers are from villages and ethnic regions in Mon State and Karen State near Thailand. Rural villages in Mon and Karen states have very limited opportunities. And our country still does not have an education system that is of practical use and can guarantee decent living later in life.

So, it is very difficult to improve their livelihood through education. So most of them cross the border into Thailand and do odd-jobs at factories, and roadside stalls. There are many children who left for Thailand, thinking it is much better to earn just 100,000 or 200,000 kyats (US$100-200) a month there than sitting doing nothing at their rural homes. There are many cases of external trafficking in which children are brought outside the country by middlemen. I don’t know the exact number.

AZ: What is the role of middlemen? How they are involved in profiting from child labor?

TMMA: Many people will do it if they have the chance, get money, and won’t be punished legally. Most of the middlemen are fair, they just take the fees they charge and leave the children at shops, or somewhere else or at houses. Then, the children do their jobs.

But in some cases, middleman brings the child and takes the fees they charge. For example, if a six-month contract is signed, he may get the one month’s salary as the fee. Then before the contract expires, the middleman takes back the child and sends him to another shop. He might give some excuses like “the child’s mother is ill or his grandmother has died or his mother is at hospital” to bring the child from the shop owner. The child does not know and neither does the shop owner. The middleman takes the child and sends him to another shop and he gets money again. But only a minority of middlemen is doing so. We need to prevent such thing from happening.

AZ: And what about the role of the shop owners? You said they have philanthropic spirit and support their workers. Is there any shop owner who does not like what you did to develop the skills of their workers and support their education?

TMMA: All the shop owners who cooperate with me enthusiastically support our project. The owner of Shwe Lin Yone Teashop in downtown Yangon even closed his shop half an hour ahead of normal closing time because he is afraid that the children might be late. Morning Star Teashop provided anything we needed. We turned the teashop into classroom while the teashop was close. Owners of shops like Lucky 7 and Thamada also gave good support.

They cooperate with as they want the child workers of their shops to gain knowledge. Most of the shop owners have philanthropic spirit and are willing to offer help. They want child workers to gain experience and knowledge. But then, they also have to take care of their businesses and they can only support as much as they can afford to. But overall, I’m satisfied with the current achievements of the project.

AZ: My last question is what is the response of the children to the project? How do you feel as a project director? Are you satisfied? What are the challenges?

TMMA: I come back to Myanmar mainly because of children. When I recall the time when I launched the project, I still can see a child. I went to a shop and asked the permission of the shop owner. The shop owner nodded and I told the children that they would be able to learn. Then tears welled up in the eyes of that child. I asked him if something was wrong with him or his parents were in trouble, he replied that he had thought that he would never had the chance to go to school again. He was 13 years old and just quit from school a few days earlier. His schooling was subjugated to the schooling of his younger brothers and sisters. Then, I felt tears well up in my eyes.

There are children like him. At 6.30 pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, you would see a green bus in front of Thamada teashop. I found that there has been team spirit between those children. Their manners have improved and polite. They dare to talk to people and have greater confidence. Then they have new friends. Sometimes, they would call me and ask me why I don’t come, when I shall come and when shall they leave the shop. They get back the atmosphere of school and a circle of schoolmates.

This really makes me feel. Whatever our long-term objective is, it is very pleasing and encouraging to see the things that happen in the short run, both for the shop owners, donors and the children. The feeling is so overwhelming that it is very difficult for me to go back to New York now. That feeling can’t be bought with money. It is delight and joy.

AZ: Joy and delight that can’t be bought with money. Many have returned to Myanmar since the political opening in 2012. And there are also many who have not come back. Some returnees work together with the government, some run their own projects and some join NGOs. Some have come back to share their skills, some run media like us, and some do business. Some went back annoyed. You said you don’t even want to go back to New York. Thank you for talking about the Myanmar Mobile Education Project.