Rampant child labour in Burma: “11 years old and waiting tables”

This young waiter working at a tea shop in Rangoon is only 11 years old. All photos by our Observer.
 
In Burma, it is not at all unusual for a child to serve you tea at a café. Child labour remains a major problem in the country, even as it opens up to the rest of the world.
 
In a 2012 ranking by the International Labour Organisation, Burma is tied with North Korea, Somalia and Sudan as the top countries in the world in terms of risk of child labour violations. While the law forbids children under 15 from working, and only allows those aged 15 to 18 to work four hours a day, it is routinely ignored.
 
International human rights organisations have repeatedly criticised Burmese authorities not just for their dire record in terms of enforcing child labour laws, but also for recruiting some minors as soldiers. In Burma, nearly a third of the population is under 15 years old. Schooling is mandatory until the end of primary school, when children are about 9 years old. 
Contributors

“A child waiter told me he left school at age 9; his parents sent him to the city to search for work”

Poe Thar (not his real name) lives in Rangoon.
 
Burma’s recent economic and political reforms don’t seem to be benefiting underage child workers. Even with tourists flooding in and investors from around the world eyeing Burma, using child labour in businesses such as tea shops, restaurants, karaoke bars, regular bars, or massage parlours remains common practice.
 
I recently met an 11-year-old boy who works in a tea shop in Rangoon. After visiting the tea shop many times, we became friendly, and he told me his story. He explained that his parents are farmers in the Irrawaddy delta, south of Rangoon. He left school at the age of 9, at the request of his family, and travelled to the city in search of work. He’s been employed by the same tea shop for two years now. He earns 30,000 kyat per month (about 24 euros), less than his more experienced friends, teenagers who can up to 50,000 kyat (40 euros). His employer provides him with meals and a bed in a cramped room above the tea shop, which he shares with other children. He keeps about 10,000 kyat (8 euros) for himself and sends the rest of the money to his parents.
 
The 11-year-old our Observer interviewed is the child wearing the green shirt. 
 
“The children working at the tea shop only sleep 5 or 6 hours, sometimes less”
 
It saddened me to see how tired he was. He and his co-workers get up at about 4 a.m. to clean the shop, wash the cups, and set up the tables. Some cook, others serve customers all day long until about 10 p.m. So they only sleep about 5 or 6 hours, sometimes less. He explained that when there are football matches on television – which are broadcast quite late, since they are played in Europe - they can only go to bed until when all the customers who came to watch the game have left. That’s often midnight or later. The next day, the children get up again at 4 a.m. and start all over. They don't get any days off. 
 
I was also touched by the story of a 14-year-old working at a noodle restaurant in downtown Rangoon. He told me that as the eldest of seven siblings, he was forced to go to work at age 13 to help support his family. He wanted to continue his studies, but there was no way his parents could afford to pay for them. He told me he hopes to go back to school one day: “If I have a chance, I will go back for sure.”
 
These children are exploited, and suffering. They have no future, and as children are the future of the nation, we are in trouble.
 
 
Two young girls working at a store in Kay Moe Chaung village, in Mon State, southern Burma.

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