Can I eat today?

January 20, 2010

WCRP: “I really would like to go to school instead of working. I get very upset when I see my friends going to school. I would like to be happy with them,” said 12-year-old Ma Larn Zar Me as she searched the street for empty water bottles.

Ma Larn Zar Me lives with her four younger sisters and parents in Kjwe Koun quarter, Mawlamine District, Mon State. Her parents’, like many villagers in southern Burma, do not have steady jobs and instead rely on sporadic labour positions to cover their daily expenses. To supplement their family’s income, Ma Larn Zar Me and her 10-year-old sister collect water bottles and sell them to recycling shops.

The recycling shops, common throughout southern Burma, buy second hand plastic furniture, broken appliances and empty plastic bottles from villagers. The shops pay 10 kyat per three 1.5 litre bottles and then sell the various plastic goods back to companies or melt them down to make new furniture.

Depending on the season, Mar Larn Zar Me’s parents rotate between a couple labour intensive jobs. Once or twice a week, during rainy season, they mow the grass at various rubber plantations, but this work is dependent on each plantations needs and is often unavailable. Plantation owners usually pay 3000 kyat per day, for 10 hours of work. During the dry and cold seasons her parents trek to the forest and cut down trees for firewood to sell to local shops. Villagers burn the wood for cooking and heating because in many areas of Burma electricity is only available for 2 or 4 hours a day. For two trees they are paid 2000 kyat.

Quite often there is no work available and her parents cannot afford food for the day. Because this situation is often a constant, Ma Larn Zar Me, with her sister in tote, spend 6-7 days a week avoiding hazards and scouring for water bottles.

“Everyday my sister and I search for water bottles under the overpass, in the streets, and in our neighbour’s yards.  We usually earn 400 or 300 kyat a day and then we are so happy because we can buy rice for our family,” said Ma Larn Zar Me. “We start at 6am and we return home around 6pm. Some people see how young my sister and I are and they give us their water bottles because they pity us. If we want to search someone’s front or back yard we have to ask the owner’s permission. Some people won’t let us search and they shout at us because they think we [are trying to] steal from their house. This makes us feel so ashamed.”

Her little sister described the events of an average day, “Sometimes under the overpass dogs try to bite us, but we run away. When I see a snack I want to eat it, but my sister cannot buy it for me. When we have free time my sister and I go to school and we sit in front of the school and look at it. I would like to attend like other children, but my mother won’t let us because she doesn’t have enough money to cover the costs. She just tells us to work and get more money.”

Ma Larn Zar Me and her sister are not alone in their plight, their predicament is unfortunately identical to several families in Mon State. Due to a job shortage throughout southern Burma and inadequate child labour laws, families have been pushed further into poverty and consequently have become increasingly dependent on the income of their children.

“We want to send our children to school, but we cannot make enough money to support them. My daughter is in standard 9. She wants to be an engineer in the future, but now she has to work in a shoe factory. She cannot continue her education without our [financial] support. We feel very upset for that,” said the mother of a child labourer.

In several cases children quit school and are employed in factories that pollute the air and those working inside, creating long-term health problems at an early age. A member from Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN), an organization that works with Burmese migrants in southern Thailand, said, “We also see child labourers in Thailand. Many migrant workers [from Burma] travel here for work and bring their families with them. The children have to leave school and some work with their parents. It is not good for their health or their futures. If they have to work for long hours and the factory is not clean it can affect their health. While they are working in factories some marry very young. It is not good for their future because they endure many problems in their life,”

According to a field reporter from southern Burma, “I see more child workers than before in Mon state. Some children collect plastic and some go to farms and clean with their parents. Some work in Tea shops and factories, while others sell water at bus stations and vegetables in the market.” WCRP asked several people from Mon state to estimate the number of children they saw daily searching the streets for water bottles, but sources said there were too many to keep count.

The combination of the financial crisis and a depleted job market in Burma has led to an increased number of families migrating to Thailand and other surrounding countries. In these situations children are often forced to, like Ma Larn Me, quit school and help supplement a depleted family income. As a result these children not only miss out on a much needed education, but are also easily exploited and more susceptible to trafficking and abuse.

“I want to earn more money because I would like to give it to my parents. I pity them [her parents], but I want to attend school with my sister. I don’t want to be poor any more. Who can help us?” said Ma Larn Zar Me.

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