Burma

Ending Debt Bondage is Key to Eradicating Child Labor, Says ILO

By Nyein Nyein 23 February 2018

YANGON-Myanmar needs to eliminate the practice of bonded labour and develop a social protection program in order to tackle the problem of illegal child labor, which has ensnared more than 1.2 million children aged 5-17, according to the International Labour Organization.

These children work an average of 51 hours per week, with most of them toiling in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries (60.5%), followed by the manufacturing (12%), trade (11.1 %) and other services sectors (5%).

The practice of bonded labour impacts a lot of low-wage workers in Myanmar, especially children employed in other uncategorized services such as in small enterprises run as family businesses, as domestic workers, and in beauty and massage parlours.

“It is the bonded-labour practices where the employers somehow offer part of the salary to the family of the child six months in advance, and you transfer the person to work with the employer without knowing what kind of conditions there are at the (place of) work and little other necessary information. And there is no contract whatsoever,” said Ms. Piyamal Pichaiwongse, the deputy liaison officer of the ILO.

“Once you get into that relationship, you start working and you end up working ludicrous hours. The condition are indescribable and now you face the reality, which is very bad,” she said.

As Myanmar also does not have social protection programs in place, it is yet another hurdle to eliminating the problem of child labor, the ILO official said.

Specifically she mentioned the case of child domestic workers. Ms. Piyamal suggested that the stronger the network of civil society and trade unions the better position society would be in to address this issue.

Government initiatives 

The government has recently taken new steps to eradicate child labour in Myanmar and has called on the public to implement the initiative as a “national duty”, starting this month.

A National Committee on the Elimination of Child Labour was officially established on Feb. 5. Under its purview, eight working committees and a secretariat will be formed to implement a national-level program as part of the Myanmar child labour eradication project. The national action plan will include policy drafting, assessment of the committees’ work with reviews every six months, coordinating between the relevant ministries and sub-national governments and self-administrative zones and cooperating with international organizations.

U Thein Swe, the union minister for Labour, Immigration and Population, said on Monday that his office had began to update data collected on child labour in the country “in order to help them improve their livelihoods.” This data gathering marks a second phase, following the first surveys done in 2017 with the technical support of the ILO.

U Thein Swe is also the vice chairman of the National Committee on the Elimination of Child Labour, headed by Vice President U Myint Swe.

He highlighted raising public awareness, providing children with free basic education, supporting the families of the child workers who are removed from the workforce and creating job opportunities as the keys to eradicating child labour.

Hazardous work by children

Half of those 1.2 million child laborers in Myanmar are believed to work in hazardous jobs such as in the construction, electricity and gas, agriculture, and mining and quarrying sectors, according to the Myanmar Labour Force, Child Labour and School-to-Work Transition Survey conducted between January and March 2015.

Therefore, the ILO in Myanmar has been pressing this issue, and specifically the development of a hazardous work list for all children below the age of 18. Addressing this issue is an obligation of every signatory of ILO Convention 182, which Myanmar ratified in 2013.

Regarding the hazardous work list, Mr. Selim Benaissa, the chief technical advisor to the ILO’s Myanmar Program on Elimination of Child Labour Project (My-PEC), said it needs to be linked with existing legislation like the 1993 Child Law.

U Pe Chit, a member of both the parliament’s Women and Child Rights Committee and the Human Rights Committee, said specific legislation is needed to prevent children being drafted into the workforce.

“We cannot tackle the problem without a law. Whatever the number of child workers is, we have to limit these actions under the law,” he said. However, he said the eradication of child labour is a difficult task and noted that the draft Labour legislation had not even been tabled in parliament yet.

“If you don’t stop the hazards now, there will be no workforce in the future, because they would have all died,” said Ms Piyamal.

“It also reflects the approach to handling the child labour situation, because that is the priority when you are working to eradicate child labour. You are not going to tell the factory to remove child labour, because that is destroying their livelihoods as well. The family depending on them, in the meantime, you do not want them on a daily basis to face something that would be to the detriment of their health,” she said.

Removing the children from hazardous workplaces, she said, is “the very first and most important step to take” and then preparing an alternative program to assist the children to get back into education or vocational training.

Myanmar has over 18 million children under the age of 18, according to the 2014 census.

From the 2015 Labour Force Survey, 10% of the more than 12 million children aged 5-17 are engaged in economic activities, mostly in rural areas.

In the 2016 amendment of the 1951 Factories Act, children under 14 years of age must not be employed, except as family help, while those who employ children under this age are violating the law and could face prosecution.

Moe Moe contributed to this report from Naypyitaw. 

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