There are millions like Myat Noe who prop up everything from tea rooms to factories
YANGON: Twelve-year-old Myat Noe dashes between tables taking orders and sweeping up cigarette butts, working for around a dollar a day in Myanmar, which has one of the worst records for child labour in the world.
There are millions like Myat Noe — child workers are widely accepted in the former junta-ruled nation — who prop up everything from tea rooms to factories. But pressure is building for a change of attitude and law.
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Weeks away from the landmark November 8 election a coalition of campaign groups are seizing the opportunity for debate and urging lawmakers to provide universal, compulsory and free education within five years.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, is expected to make major gains in the election, and has identified education as the cornerstone in reducing poverty, but so far hasn’t committed to this demand.
A quick glance along Yangon’s streets reveals there is some way to go. Streetside tea shops — the busy jumbles of plastic tables and chairs usually patronised by chain-smoking men — are mostly staffed by children, some as young as seven-years-old.
“I come from the countryside and I have to help my parents, because they don’t have enough money,” Myat Noe — whose name has been changed to protect her identity — told AFP.
Like many of the child workers in Yangon she comes from one of Myanmar’s poor ethnic minority groups and has worked for around a dollar a day since she was nine.
Child workers often toil 14 hours a day, seven days a week, sleeping in large dormitories with other children or on makeshift beds made from the plastic tables which they wait on by day.
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There is no time for school let alone play, condemning most child workers to a lifetime of manual labour and poverty.
According to data from the 2014 census, Myat Noe is one of an estimated 4.4 million under-18s who do not attend school in Myanmar.
The impoverished country is the world’s seventh worst for child labour, according to risk analysts Verisk Maplecroft, just ahead of India and Liberia.
The rates look set to rise as the economy booms four years after opening up to the world, with new hotels, cafes and factories providing jobs to willing workers, irrespective of age.
A tangle of labour laws do not ban children from work, says Piyamal Pichaiwongse of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Yangon.
“There’s nothing clear on the age at which you can start work and the laws are not applied,” she says.
In 2013, Myanmar joined an ILO convention which outlaws the worst forms of child labour such as forced work, including in the army or sex industry.
The government says it wants to address the situation but until a binding law is crafted, children will remain ever-present in the workforce.
“As parents are poor, they send their kids to tea shops to make money,” Win Shein, of Myanmar’s labour ministry, told AFP.
In an attempt to reach working children, several organisations provide free schooling on the job. Three nights a week for the last six months, 15-year-old Naing Lin Aung has attended class after a full day working the teashop tables.
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“I don’t know what will happen to me in the future so I want to learn some English, some computer skills, some knowledge of health in case I get sick,” he said, his eyes red with fatigue.
The Myanmar Mobile Education project (myME), teaches 600 children in Yangon and Mandalay, holding classes inside teashops after closing time.
For youngsters working at 24-hour establishments they run an improvised classroom in a converted minibus parked up outside.
Some attend for basic literacy and mathematics while those with a bit of schooling under their belt want to improve their English and computer skills.
Teaching over-worked youngsters is no easy task. “Most of the children work all day long so sometimes they can’t focus on the lessons. It’s a challenge,” teacher Thaw Wai Htoo told AFP.
Another organisation, Scholarships for Street Kids, compensates parents for the income they lose from their child leaving work.
“This country is really poor and the education system destroyed… so it’s hard to value education and to persuade the parents to send their kids to school,” says John McConnell, the group’s founder.
It has provided around 300 scholarships so far, but for every child they reach, many more have little choice but to work in a nation where the education system was ravaged by decades of junta under-funding.
For Tim Aye-Hardy, founder of myME, a whole generation is being sacrificed by poverty. “What kind of jobs will they get, what kind of future is open for them and for the country?”