Spare the Child
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, July 23, 2018


Spare the Child



Burma’s military government pays lip service to the rights of children, but still allows child labor and recruits underage soldiers

RANGOON — ABOUT 6:30 p.m., a sudden, heavy rain poured down on the Thirimingala vegetable market, sending crowds of shoppers, traders and laborers running for cover.

A group of children in ragged clothes paid no attention to the drenching rain. They continued picking through wilted and soiled vegetables and fruit that had been dumped in piles of garbage behind the market. 

A child sells brooms in Rangoon. (Photo: Aung Thet Wine/The Irrawaddy)
Bits of vegetables and fruit that appeared edible were quickly stuffed into their bags. Next to the children, a few adult men and women also sifted through putrid piles of foodstuff.

The children, about 30 in total, outnumbered the adults. They were part of a small army of child laborers in Rangoon who struggle for survival, forsaking school for odd jobs, begging and scavenging.

“I come from Hlaing Tharyar,” said Ywun Ei San, a 10-year-old girl who was collecting discarded foodstuff to sell to market vendors in her hometown on the outskirts of Rangoon.

“Usually, the trucks and vegetable wholesalers throw away their damaged vegetables around 4 a.m., and at about 6:30 in the evening. We collect the good pieces. We can earn a thousand kyat a day (US $0.85).

Ywun Ei San has survived by collecting garbage for more than a year. Usually, a child, if asked what they would most like to have, says something about toys, games or candy. However, Ywun Ei San, in a resigned voice, said she wanted “vegetables that I can sell.”

Nobody knows the number of child laborers in Burma, but they number perhaps in the hundreds of thousands,  working in markets, teashops, restaurants, small industry and on construction sites. Some children also end up as domestic servants, while others are exploited in the sex trade.

At 4 o’clock one morning, eight children in their teens had already started their jobs at the Win teashop in Mayangone Township on the Rangoon-Insein road. With sleep still in their eyes, some washed cups and plates, while others prepared a fire to boil water, cooked snacks and arranged tables and stools.

“We get up at 3:30 in the morning. The shop opens at 5:30. About 6:30, the customers start coming in and we start serving them. The shop owner feeds us at 8,” said Maung Thaw Kaung, a skinny 12-year-old boy. His bones pressed against his skin, and his hands were rough and worn.

“We have to serve the customers all day until the shop closes at 10:30 at night,” he said. “We have to clean and get the things in order after the shop closes, and then we go to bed about midnight. I have worked here for more than three years now, and I earn 8,000 kyat ($7) a month. Phoe Lone and Wae Htoo [two child co-workers] have just started their work here. Each of them earns 4,500 kyat ($3.70) a month. The shop feeds us two meals a day. We put these stools together with a blanket, and they are our beds.”

Burmese labor laws officially allow 8-hour working days for adults, but the children at Win teashop put in more than 17 hours a day.

“When I started running this shop, I hired five adult waiters and two children for menial jobs,” said the teashop’s owner. “Later, I learned the adults were not good at the work. Children don’t complain as much, and they do whatever I ask them to do, so I gave all the work to children.”

Many employers say the same thing about child workers, and they have little to fear because of the loose enforcement of child labor laws by authorities.

An elected representative of the National League for Democracy (NLD) said child workers were among the “silent voices” of Burma. “Nowadays, we can see child workers everywhere, from maid services to big construction sites, and it is rare to see work sites in Burma with no children. That shows our country’s future is in trouble,” he said.

An officer with an  NGO that works to protect children’s rights said, “Burma signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1991, but the government performance in this regard is inadequate and unsatisfactory.”

“Children here don’t enjoy the rights which were accepted in the CRC,” he said.

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