The Irrawaddy

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.