Spotlight on Poverty and Child Labor in Burma

January 22, 2014

HURFOM: It’s 5:00am, and the early morning fog makes the sky look very dark; a limousine from Ta La Mon arrives at the bus station in Myay Nee Gon, Moulmein, Mon State. It’s time for the local children to start their daily search for plastic, which they redeem to buy food for themselves and their families.

With full access to electricity, the bus station is abuzz with large numbers of vendors, retailers, and passengers. Among the noise come the sounds of a group of children between the ages of 8-10 years, “are there any purified water bottles left? If so, give it to me, give it to me!” The children grab bottles from the passengers as they get out of the limousine.

The children are wearing only short trousers and vests; they do not have the luxury of jackets on this freezing cold morning. Mostly young children, there seems to be only one girl who looks at least teenaged; they are begging for plastic bottles, beer bottles, and any other kind of bottle they can get.

The children are banned from stepping onto the bus. They all grab at each other so they can be the one to win the bottle, as a passenger tosses it out to them. Some children fall to the ground while trying to grab the bottle. The older children, who have more strength, are able to grab more bottles than the younger ones. Some children get hurt, and do not win in the fight for the bottles; they begin to cry when they realize they get nothing.

“Do you guys have to collect this plastic and grab each other like that every day?”, asks a passenger. One young child responds, “Yes, we do! We do not have enough money to cover [expenses] at home if we do not collect these plastic bottles, because my father passed away last year”. The child goes on to explain, “My mother has to wash clothes at another house while I am collecting plastic. What I [can collect] now is for our food”.

There are some children who can only come to the bus station to collect bottles in the mornings and evenings. These children are the lucky few who still attend school. The majority of the children must hunt all day for bottles and other recyclable materials because they cannot afford to go to school.

Children can be seen searching through garbage for recyclables to redeem throughout Burma, and their daily forage was put on display in December of last year, when Burma hosted the 27th SEA Games (Southeast Asian Games) in Nay Pyi Daw.

The Burmese government was proud to show the SEA Games’ foreign audience, and the world at large, how the living standards in Burma have improved, and how peaceful the country is now. The government has claimed that its citizens are enjoying a time of peace, and have access to basic necessities. In reality, its citizens are hungry and starved. This ugly truth was shown to the world, as Burma’s children collected plastic and garbage in front of foreigners at the SEA Games.

Nearby the tournament grounds, huge numbers of dirty children could be seen collecting plastic and searching through garbage for recyclables. The area surrounding the SEA Games was ripe with plastic and recyclables, thrown out by foreign audience members and tournament competitors, who are staying in Nay Pyi Daw for the Games.

Not only was athletic skill on display, but audience members were also shown the true level of poverty affecting Burmese citizens. “It is a shame for us to see the children collecting plastic boxes, bottles, beer, and others in front of foreigners”, says a transporter from Nay Phi Daw, “it’s like you’re selling tobacco, where others are trading diamonds”.

Aside from digging through garbage in order to support their families, a large number of underage children, as young as ten, are working in restaurants, tea shops, and beer shops in the areas in and around Nay Pyi Daw.

One restaurant owner from the bus station in Myaw Nee Kon, Mawlamine states, “We can’t hire people above 18 years-old to work in the restaurant, because they are leaving to foreign countries. It’s difficult to get [an] adult, but a lot of children are in [search] of [a] job”. He goes on to explain that “most restaurant owners want to hire children, rather than adults, because it costs less and [it is easier] to manage them. Most children working in [Mawlamine] are from upper Myanmar. We, the owners, hire [the children] to make it easier for them to support their [families] and find shelter and food”.

The project manager from the Women and Child Rights Project speaks to the human rights abuses being perpetrated by restaurant owners in the Mawlamine region, “the [restaurant] owners have broken Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) law [by] hiring underage children as child labor. The government must take full responsibility to protect [the children’s] rights and support them”.

Burma’s children are collecting plastic to finance their basic needs. These children are digging through garbage in order to make enough money to feed themselves, and many are hoping to find enough plastic to redeem so that that they will be able to afford to go to school. These children are in a deep hole; they have no dreams of education, a place in society, or owning property, because they are growing up in a country where there are no rights to education, or basic health care. They feel inferior, which affects not only the children, but the community as a whole. Indeed, those who will lead their nation to reform, and develop their country for a brighter future, are the younger generation, Burma’s children.

As Burma has been governed by a dictatorship for over five decades, the opportunities of education, business, and freedom of expression are weak for the Burmese people. The people lack access to education, and face many hardships. Since there are no rights to basic health care, many Burmese citizens suffer from ailing diseases. Such hardship and suffering has passed from generation to generation.

When comparing the extent of the citizens’ hardships, to the inaccessibility of education, it is clear that the lack of education has a greater effect on the children than hardship. School-age children spend their days wandering the streets. After being forced to drop out of school, these children must spend long hours collecting plastic to pay for their food, and the government ignores it. It is reported that there is little help from the government.

Why are our children being ignored by the government? The children want to shoud loudly, “Please help us, please help us and don’t ignore us”. The Burmese people should act upon the issue of child labor, and urge the government to support the rights of children.

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