Burma to Sign Convention on Child Labor

By Lawi Weng 20 September 2013

RANGOON — Burma will sign an agreement next month with the International Labor Organization (ILO) to work toward the elimination of child labor in the country.

It will be the first time that the Southeast Asian country has signed an ILO convention on child labor.

“The government of Myanmar has announced its intention to ratify ILO Convention 182 on the worst form of child labor,” Steve Marshall, the ILO liaison officer in Rangoon, told The Irrawaddy this week. The ILO defines the “worst form of child labor” as work that can have a lasting impact on a child’s mental or physical development.

“As part of its policy commitment, the government would reconfirm that such work is considered illegal and would work, with support from the ILO and others, to prevent it from happening, to remove children from such work and to hold perpetrators accountable,” Marshall said.

Child labor is a major problem in Burma, which is emerging from five decades of military dictatorship that wrecked the economy and the education system, encouraging many children to help their families by taking jobs in teashops or factories. 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.

The ILO is also collaborating with the government to stop a second category of child labor that includes children who, for whatever reason, have fallen out of the education system and are required to work, often to help support themselves and their families.

“The government, again supported by the ILO and others, is already working to put in place the necessary policies and structures to address this issue—this includes moving on regulatory reform and budgetary revision, initiating necessary economic reforms to stimulate growth and reduce poverty, strengthening the education system, and the introduction of a protection floor principle toward providing baseline support for the most vulnerable in society,” Marshall said.

Thet Thet Aung, a leading labor activist from the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, said, “There is child labor in our country because our country is a nation of poverty.”

“Child labor starts when families can’t get enough food. Children are supposed to study, but they cannot go to school because they need to work to help their families.”

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

Thet Thet Aung says that according to the 1951 labor law, children between the ages of 13 and 15 can also legally work for eight hours daily after receiving a doctor’s note saying they are in good health.

“I think 13 years old is too young,” she said. “Let’s set a limit of four hours of working a day for them. The rest of the time, give an education to those who are interested in studying, or let them learn technical skills so they can advance their future careers.”

Many children from townships outside Rangoon travel to the commercial capital to find employment. Among them is 13-old Myo Maung, who works at a teashop in Rangoon’s Bahan Township, earning just 20,000 kyats (US$20) monthly.

“Families need support so they can have enough food, as our country works to eradicate poverty,” Thet Thet Aung said. “If we do not provide for families, we will have problems, and children will be forced to take bad jobs, perhaps working at brothels.

“First I want the government to offer good protection for children. Second, I want the government to give them time to study and pursue a proper career.”