The children of Myanmar are an important part of the Myanmar economy. They work as servants, factory workers and farm workers – often to replace adults who migrate to get better jobs in neighboring countries.
The recruitment of children, who are normally paid less and easily controlled, has become a business model for many successful teashops and factories in Myanmar. According to Maplecroft’s Child Labour Index, the country ranked a staggering 3rd among 197 countries in child labour prevalence; only Somalia and Eritrea ranked higher. Yes, Myanmar has made it way to the top of the table again, with one-third of its children working in dangerous construction sites, mines, factories and in agriculture.
Although the government has signed with the ILO to ratify the Child Labour Convention, child labour remains a common sight in Myanmar. Many underage males work as waiters at tea shops, while girls from various villages go to cities like Yangon or Mandalay to work as cleaners, house-helpers or even in brothels. But the largest numbers are on farms or in factories.
Amy is a typical example of the problem. She is a young Kayin worker in Yangon, who started working as a servant at the age of 13. She told me that going to Yangon to work has become a trend for Kayin children from rural villages. Stories about wonderful buildings, big cinemas and the money they could earn from working in Yangon instead of going to school have led many young boys and girls to move.
In many cases, these children are not stopped by their parents since they cannot afford the money for school and private tuition, which is normally made compulsory by teachers. Amy explained that her parents take her earnings. Parents from villages come to the houses where their children work to take salaries for three to four years in advance, meaning that the child would never be allowed to leave the job.
She said she was not happy at the house: “They don’t increase my salary, keep me at home all day, and the maximum holiday I get each year is a week – and there is nothing I can do about it. My dad has taken US$3000 from them and I cannot leave.”
Child helpers can work for up to 16 hours a day, starting their day at 5am in the morning and working until 9pm at night. Weak enforcement of laws about child labour has made life difficult for the millions of underage workers who are underpaid and overworked. Yet it is common and accepted practice in Myanmar. The prevalence of child labour in the country is not only due to poverty, but also due to the poor education system, domestic violence, civil war, and the migration of adult workers to Thailand and elsewhere.
Tackling child labour in a community where child labour is accepted and encouraged is a huge challenge. Families rely on their income; employers want them to keep working; other children want their jobs. Yet the consequences of neglecting the child labour crisis are high..
What is going wrong?
The return to education (especially in poor villages) is normally very low. Due to poor infrastructure and under-investment in education, many students are taught in a big class where the teacher cannot give attention to each individual. Moreover, low paid teachers who are barely monitored fail to show-up to classes. Unable to contribute financially to improve the system, parents get their children out of school to work.
Lack of financial institutions is yet another reason for forced child labour. In Myanmar where less than 10% of the population has bank accounts, informal lending remains the main source of finance for many of the country’s population. Elevated monthly interest rates of up to 10% are changed by informal loan providers. Thus, parents get their children to work in case of emergency for when family members need money for health care ect.
The Government’s Contribution
Recently, on the 13th of December 2013, Myanmar moved a step closer to stop child labour as the government deposited with the International Labour Office (ILO) the instrument of ratification on the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999. The instrument calls for the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including slavery, human trafficking, the use of children in armed conflict, for prostitution, pornography and illicit activities (such as drug trafficking) as well as hazardous work.
Similarly, in June 2012, the government signed a Joint Action Plan with the UN to end all military committed recruitment and use of children in armed forces by December 2013. Additionally, in the 2012 fiscal year, the reformist government addressed these issues by reducing military expenditure from around 24.4% to 14.4% and by increasing education and medical care expenses by one percentage point each to 4.73% and 2.82% respectively. In 2013, the government also made education compulsory and have started introducing stipend programmes for children from low income households.
Although a baby step has been taken by the government to increase expenditure on education and healthcare after receiving criticisms from the international community, Myanmar has a long way to go. According to Steve Marshall, liaison officer for the ILO in Myanmar, much more work is still required to ensure proper application of the agreement. The ILO by May 2012 had verified 770 cases of underage recruitment although government law state that no one younger than 18 should be in the army. Of course, the actual number is certainly higher. The expenditure on education and health care also remain far behind neighboring countries like Thailand and Cambodia.
Uncertainty is not new for Myanmar citizens and a disappointment on the laws imposed by the government is common. The first elected government of Myanmar in 2015 will have to ensure of human right issues are solved and the citizens receive basic education and healthcare. The government will also need to establish new labour laws and set a national minimum wage. Will the issue of child labour be a priority for the upcoming government? I’m not sure. However, what I am sure is that, if child labour is not stopped, Myanmar will face shortages in skilled labour in the future and a further rise in inequality which could create social issues.
The economic imperative behind halting child labour
Those who presently employ children will complain – as will their parents. But children have rights, one of which is to access basic education. It is the job of government to enforce the rights of children, which is also in their best interest. Tea shops and factories will just have to pay more for older workers.
Already there is talk that the country’s growth is suffering from a shortage of skilled labour. Myanmar’s record of high literacy is under threat. As opportunities for work by children have expanded with recent growth, we are now bringing up a new generation of illiterate youth. They, and Myanmar, will remain trapped in low-productivity employment. Illiteracy also undermines democracy.
Needless to say, child labour should be made illegal and Myanmar should enforce the employment of children, while at the same time providing free, quality primary-school education. But for many still, the long habit of employing children in Myanmar makes enforcement a problem. We need to educate the population and convince them that this a problem and that children working is wrong. Make no mistake: Getting kids out of work and back into schools is not just a nice thing to do, it is an economic development imperative.
 Name changed to protect the identity of the interviewee.