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Too young to toil: Burma’s child labour epidemic

Just after 5am, a drowsy-looking teenager starts to move between tables, turning upside-down chairs to the ground.

“I want to go to school but my parents cannot afford to send me. So I have to work here,” says Kyaw Kyaw, who — though now an 18-year-old — started working when he was of primary school age.

At first he helped his family work on their farm in the Irrawaddy Delta while he went to school during the day. But when his family fell upon financial hardship they asked him to give up school and move to an industrial zone in Rangoon to find work. He now works as a waiter at a teashop in downtown Rangoon.

“Many parents in rural areas think it is enough to just learn how to read and write,” he says with a shrug. “Some parents will make their children drop out of school after they get to 4th or 5th grade.”

In Rangoon, you can find child labourers like Kyaw Kyaw in almost every teashop, waiting on tables or doing the dishes.

There are some 1.3 million child labourers in Burma, according to the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population, but the real number is estimated to be much higher. In Burma, the minimum legal working age is 14.

As Selim Benaissa explains, child labourers often work informally — on farms, at construction sites and fish markets, selling treats at traffic lights and in other scattered sectors. Their actual number is therefore difficult to quantify.

“We don’t know how big it is. There are very obscure forms [of child labour] you can’t get access to,” says Benaissa, International Labour Organization (ILO) child labour technical adviser in Burma. “The worst forms of child labour are all forms of child slavery; forced child labour; child trafficking; child soldiers; the use of children in prostitution, pornography; commercial exploitation like using children to sell drugs; and hazardous work.”

National Action Plan: Burma’s government takes a first step

The government has taken the first step to address the rampant problem of child labour throughout the country by drafting a five-year National Action Plan to eliminate child labour. The action plan’s main objectives are to collect data, raise awareness, improve quality education, better enforce the law and prevent children from entering into the worst forms of child labour.

In a 2015 ILO survey of children working in Rangoon’s sprawling Hlaingtharyar industrial zone, the majority of 13- to 15-year-old children reported to be working in excess of four hours a day, which is above the hours permitted by law under the Factories Act. Ninety percent of 16- and 17-year-olds also reported working more than 40 hours a week.

One positive development after this survey was completed was 2016 amendments to the Factories Act and the Shops and Establishments Act, which raised the minimum working age from 13 to 14 years of age for young workers in the manufacturing sector and in shops.

The National Action Plan aims to target persisting gaps in the law. “Awareness-raising is urgent in society and the challenge will be the enforcement of the law,” says Benaissa.

A change in Burma’s labour laws was the raising of the minimum working age from 13 to 14 in the Factories Act. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

The Factories Act, as amended last year, prohibits children below 14 years old from working in factories and those aged between 14-15 years old are not allowed to work more than four hours a day. Those aged 16-17 years old are also not allowed to work more than 44 hours weekly. But in the ILO survey, 50 percent of children working below the minimum legal age, 73 percent of 13-14 years and 80 percent of 16-17 years reported working six to seven days a week and more than 40 hours a week.

Nonetheless, the survey results raise questions as to whether the laws are unrealistic — or as importantly, unenforceable — and whether they do in fact protect children.

The director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB), Vicky Bowman, says many children aged 14 who are seeking employment want to work full days, not four hours a day. She says that businesses need to contribute to the elimination of child labour.

With the opening of Burma’s economy and a burst of international investment, Bowman believes businesses need to consider impacts on children in their mandatory Environmental and Social Impact Assessments before implementing projects. “For example, a mine can bring in migrant labour with more children than local schools absorb. … Since a project may affect children differently to adults, the voices of children need to be heard,” she says.

Reversing normalised trends of child labour

Benaissa agrees that the elimination of child labour needs to be handled sensitively and that the answer isn’t “firing children, one day to the next, who are found to be working below the minimum age.” He points out that this approach will only drive children into more dangerous forms of labour.

Burma’s current social protection system is limited. For years under nearly five decades of military rule, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement was a governmental institution that was severely neglected and underfunded. The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF is now focused on training social workers to be the first point of call when a child is found to be working illegally, clocking excessive hours or involved in dangerous work.

UNICEF’s child protection specialist in Burma, Teona Aslanishvili, says that “the key to success is in the capacity of the government to identify the link and the protection response. So you need a figure like a social worker to trace the child’s family needs, the push factors and address these factors while the child goes back to the family and gets formal or informal education.”

Children aged between 14-15 years old are not allowed to work more than four hours a day. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

Although in small numbers — nationwide, only about 100 social workers are currently employed by the government — Aslanishvili says this is one step toward building up child protection services in Burma.

Most cases of child labour are linked to poverty. Suresh Bartlett from World Vision says child labour’s underlying issue is a lack of employment opportunities for parents. “As the country develops, it is important that development trickles to all areas of the country, giving people livelihoods and giving them hope.”

In rural areas and among single-headed households, children’s sense of obligation to work is also particularly high, says Bartlett. Through desperation looking for work, some children — particularly in ethnic minority areas — also find themselves trafficked or recruited into dangerous jobs.

Worst forms of child labour

The National Action Plan has prioritised protecting children from engaging in the worst forms of labour, such as hazardous work, which is a provision in the amended Factories Act. However, gaps exist in Burma’s labour laws. Two laws — the Factories Act and the Shops and Establishments Act — cover part of the working child population, but not all of it. Children working in agriculture, as domestic workers or other informal work are unregulated by the government.

In the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report for 2016, Burma was listed as one of the worst offenders in human trafficking, on the same tier as Iran, North Korea and Syria. The conscription of children by the country’s military and ethnic armed groups, widespread use of forced labor and the trafficking of women and girls were singled out as some of the most serious problems.

Some local community groups try to provide information about trafficking and rehabilitation services for those that escape such circumstances, but this area is largely an unknown grey zone in terms of current trends and numbers of children being trafficked.

One initiative is a hotline service established by World Vision. Last year, former child soldier Sa Lai’s father called the hotline number for help getting his son out of the military.

A number of pressures at home drove Sa Lai to join the Burmese Army rather than finishing school. When he first joined, he was put to work lifting stones, as well as being tasked with other hard manual labour. He was then put through military training and sent to the frontline at Laogai, in northern Shan State.

“As soon as we arrived at Laogai, we could hear gunshots. I had to fight on the frontline for two months. One of my friends was killed after 15 days of arriving at the frontline. I can’t express my feeling — I felt like crying; I was very sad; I couldn’t sleep.”

It wasn’t just the harsh realities of war that drove Sa Lai to try to escape from the ranks of the army: He also realised he wanted to be back at school. “When I saw the green school uniform I felt strange. Looking down at my own uniform I thought, ‘I should be in school. Why am I wearing the military uniform?’”

Sa Lai realised he wanted to get out of the military but he had no way of contacting his family.

“I wanted to call my family since I was in Dawei training, before going to the frontline, but I had no money.” Finally, he got his hands on a cellphone at the base and called his parents. It took six months and several appointments with different military commands before he was finally released.

UNICEF and World Vision say there has been progress in stopping the recruitment of child soldiers by the Burmese military, but some ethnic armed groups may still be recruiting child soldiers.

“In an environment such as this, where there is so much conflict, the issue is you are looking for manpower and children become ripe for recruitment,” says Bartlett. “Based on information we have, we think it [child soldier recruitment] is much reduced but there is not a lot of recruiters and middlemen who are held responsible. But this is something, through collaboration with the Tatmadaw, we are working on.”

The MyMe bus parked outside central station in downtown Rangoon where a class is held for street kids. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)

Improving access to education for all

Though public education is ostensibly free in Burma, that doesn’t mean all children can afford to go. Small attendant costs like uniforms, school lunch and transport are often too much for families that are financially strapped.

“If you are a struggling parent then this $1 a day is a lot of money to send a child to school,” explains Tim Aye Hardy. Every day seeing so many children working in teashops, he felt compelled to do something. He has established the Myanmar Mobile Education Project, (MyMe), which provides classes to child labourers on subjects such as basic literacy, math, computer skills and hygiene.

Hardy says of his thinking behind the project: “We decided to provide practical, quality education to these young children who are working 13- or 14-hour days. If they can’t go to school, or evening classes, then why don’t we take the classes to them?”

That’s where the “mobile” component of MyMe comes in: Hardy decided to convert old buses and vans into classrooms on wheels. MyMe now provides education to about 3,000 children working at 50 teashops and restaurants, and nine monastic schools, across five poor communities in Rangoon.

Another problem contributing to high dropout rates among schoolchildren, who then often enter into the workforce prematurely, is that Burma’s education system has not been overhauled in decades. It is based on a system of rote learning, with no emphasis on creative or critical thinking.

“If you are a struggling parent and you have this education system which doesn’t guarantee any tangible outcomes for your child after they complete school, you really have to think, ‘Do I want to put them through this system?’”

To keep children engaged in their education, the MyMe curriculum is centred on teaching life skills that they can use every day. Hardy also says it’s about rebuilding child labourers’ confidence: “We teach them vocational skills to open up their horizons, give them encouragement and show them there are options out there for them. That their life is worth something.”

For Kyaw Kyaw, the MyMe program has offered him new hope.

“My favourite subject is English,” he tells DVB. “I want to be an interpreter or translator.”

Inside the MyMe classroom. (Photo: Libby Hogan / DVB)