By AUNG THET WINE - The Irrawaddy News - V16-9
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.Burma’s military government pays lip service to the rights of children,
but still allows child labor and recruits underage soldiers
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.
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. “We have laws, but it is very difficult to implement them.”
According to the CRC, every child is entitled to a standard of living with adequate physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. This essentially means all children should have basic shelter, nutritious food, clean water, basic health care, the right to an education, the right to be protected from all forms of exploitation, violence and neglect and the right to express their views freely in accordance with age and maturity.
The Burmese military government, however, fails in guaranteeing such protection and is itself a major violator through its conscription and use of child soldiers in the Burmese military. Residents in Kyeemyindaing Township in Rangoon have reported that military recruiters approach street children in the areas of Central San Pya fish market and the Thirimingala market.
A resident living near the central fish market of Kyeemyindaing Township said, “There are many street children hanging around Thirimingala market. Some children have parents, but they are so poor, they can’t raise their children, and they put them on the streets. Other children are orphans. They survive by odd jobs, living on the street. Many of these street children are rounded up and forced to serve in the military.”
Similar reports are common throughout Burma even as the military government has consistently claimed to support child labor laws and denied allegations of forced child recruitment in the military.
A lawyer from Mayangone Township in Rangoon who has studied the child labor issue said, “Burma has promulgated the ‘1993 National Child Labor Law’ and the ‘2001 Rules Related to Child Labor Laws,’ but actually, these laws are only on paper and are not enforced.”
Stories of child laborers, child soldiers and abandoned street children almost never appear in the state-run media or privately owned press. When such accounts are written by journalists or concerned activists, the junta’s censorship board red flags the stories and they are discarded, said a senior journalist in Rangoon.
“I see many examples of child laborers and child soldiers while going around the city,” he said. “The censorship board is sensitive about that kind of news.”
The NLD representative is left to wonder why the military government refuses to fulfill its responsibility to protect children from neglect and exploitation.
“To stop the use of child laborers and child soldiers, we need to overhaul the whole administration system,” he said. “Until we have a system where the law is respected and actually enforced, we will continue to see more child laborers, child soldiers and child abuse,” he said.