Every day from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Soe Min Lwin takes orders, serves food and washes dishes at a tea shop in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon. Every night, he climbs onto a wooden table and falls asleep. He’s 12, and by earning just over a dollar a day, he is his family’s main breadwinner.
“When I don’t work,” he said softly, “sometimes [my family] is all right, but sometimes they’re not. It depends on whether my stepfather can find work. He doesn't have a steady job.”
Soe Min Lwin’s boss, shop owner Ko Thar Thint, lets him out of work six hours a week to attend classes held by the Myanmar Mobile Education Project. But he insists that hiring children like Soe Min Lwin is not unfair labor.
“We don’t torture these kids or force them to work,” he said. “We take them in and give them work so they can support their families. And here, they have a place to live and eat. If we didn’t take them in, they might end up in a worse place.”
Ko Thar Thint has a 9-year-old son, but when asked if he would let him leave school at age 12 and go to work too, he said no. “These kids have to work because their families don’t have enough money,” he said, referring to the five children who work for him. “My son is luckier than [they are], so he doesn’t need to work yet.”
Children have long been pillars of Myanmar’s economy, with many working as housecleaners, factory hands and shop assistants. But their role has come under increasing international scrutiny as the country opens up after five decades of military dictatorship.
“The issue itself is culturally accepted, because everywhere you go in this country, we see children working, in every sector,” said Tim Aye-Hardy, the founder and director of the Myanmar Mobile Education Project, which provides free informal education to 400 children working in tea shops.
Since Myanmar began major economic and political reforms in 2011, more and more children have moved from the country’s rural areas to cities, he said. “A lot of shops and restaurants opened up in the cities, and they need a cheap and reliable labor force,” he said. “And a lot more people … have more disposable income, so they demand more services, which also requires more labor.”
Recent statistics are hard to find. UNICEF’s latest data are from a 2006 study that found nearly 33 percent of children ages 7 to 16 surveyed had jobs. And the U.K. risk analysis firm Maplecroft ranks the country’s child labor problem as the seventh worst in the world, slightly better than in India and Liberia.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) is in the process of gathering statistics, but child labor is “quite normalized” in Myanmar, said Selim Benaissa, the chief technical officer of the ILO’s Myanmar program on the 4limination of child labor.
“There is certainly a problem of enforcement and of awareness of the laws,” he said.
‘A lot of shops and restaurants opened up in the cities, and they need a cheap and reliable labor force. And a lot more people … have more disposable income, so they demand more services, which also requires more labor.’
Myanmar Mobile Education Project
In 1951, the country, then called Burma, barred children under 13 from working in shops and factories. The same law prohibits children 13 to 15 from working more than four hours a day. And in December 2013, Myanmar’s parliament ratified an ILO convention calling for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor, including slavery, trafficking and the use of children in armed conflict and hazardous work.
U Win Shein, the director general of the factories and general labor law inspection department at Myanmar’s Ministry of Labor, said the government is trying its best.
“Child labor is a big issue,” he said, “but it is the result of poverty. The country is poor, so the children have to help their families make money. To address this, we need economic development, and this will take a very long time.”
He also said the government is considering raising the minimum working age to 14 and that his office is negotiating with business owners to provide their youngest employees with an education, vocational training and health care.
Brokers help fuel child labor in Myanmar, where 2 in 5 children below the age of 5 are undernourished. They deliver children to employers, for a fee. Khin Htay has acted as a broker on a few occasions, in addition to her full-time job selling children’s clothes at a local market in Yangon. Employers pay her up to $10 if she is able to find children to work for them.
"Some people come and ask for kids to work in their shops, like a fruit juice shop,” she said. “Some people ask for a housemaid. There are also girls around 15 who come and ask me to help them find work."
Khin Htay said she feels she is helping the children because they are poor and need a job to survive. “It’s the least I can do,” she said.
Other brokers make a living off these transactions. Their business is much more secretive.
‘Child labor is a big issue. But it is the result of poverty. The country is poor, so the children have to help their families make money. To address this, we need economic development, and this will take a very long time.’
U Win Shein
director general, Myanmar’s Ministry of Labor
Child labor is so pervasive that it’s posing a challenge to U.S. companies that returned to Myanmar after the U.S. started easing sanctions in 2012.
A number of U.S. companies declined requests to visits to their sites. But Coca-Cola said its policy in Myanmar is to hire workers 18 or older. And the clothing retailer Gap said it “has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to child labor.”
Audits conducted by the international monitoring organization Verité “have not found evidence of child labor” at two factories used by Gap in Myanmar, according to a voluntary report the company filed with the State Department. But, the audits found, “Some personnel files did not contain proof of age verification” and “some age verification documents … showed signs of manipulation.”
It can be difficult for U.S. companies in Myanmar to avoid child labor, according to Machut Shishak, an economic and commercial affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon.
“Certainly not directly, U.S. companies aren’t going to violate international best practice or local laws, for that matter,” he said. “However, U.S. companies have to do a lot of due diligence to figure out where in the supply chain there might be child labor.”
“We have heard of cases where companies have found that in the supply chain and had to tell suppliers or subcontractors through suppliers, ‘Hey, we can’t work with you unless you deal with the child labor situation,’” he added.
Another difficulty is figuring out what to do with children who are let go from their jobs once they are deemed too young, according to Benaissa. “It’s happened in other countries when local companies fire youth workers,” he explained. “Those children are young and sent to some other worse forms of child labor compared to what they were in originally … so we want to avoid this.”
At Soe Min Lwin’s home in Than Tan Zar village, 55 miles north of Yangon, his $35 monthly salary goes a long way. His family owes money for rice. Each sack costs $20 and lasts his mother, stepfather, two younger brothers and grandmother one month.
“It’s not that I want them to work,” said his mother, Naw El Shee. “Kids shouldn’t be far away from their parents. They could be corrupted. I let Soe work only because we’re not doing well."
She worries that his 4-year-old brother Kant could be next.