Child labour growing alongside Myanmar's economy
WHEN a boat stacked with gravel moors at a jetty in Yangon, 14-year-old Aung Htet Myat fills a basket. He then carries it on his back to trucks that whisk the load to construction sites springing up across Myanmar's booming biggest city.
For each basket, a labour broker rewards the boy with a stick that he puts in a plastic bottle tied to his belt.
At the end of the shift, which can last up to 24 hours, he exchanges the sticks for cash - 100 baskets earn him about US$2.50 (S$3.30).
"I carry baskets with stones the whole day," said Aung who has worked at the jetty for the last two years.
One in five children in Myanmar aged 10 to 17 goes to work instead of school, according to figures from a census report on employment published last month. And the opening up of the economy since 2011 has triggered a spike in demand for labour.
As the former Burma emerges from nearly 50 years of neglect under military rule, Yangon has been transformed into a vast construction site.
Than Than Win and her two teenage sons began working at the same jetty as Aung after her husband died. The family rely on a labour broker who lends them money in return for on-demand, non-stop work when a boat arrives.
Her story is common in Yangon's slums, filled with people who have flocked from the countryside as the economy has boomed, said Michael Slingsby, an urban poverty expert based in the city.
"People borrow money from lenders and, in order to repay debts, children are being sent out to work," he noted.
May Win Myint, a senior member of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy which took power this month, said tackling child labour was one of the party's goals.
Myanmar law bars children under 13 from working in shops or factories, and says teenagers aged 13 to 15 should not work for more than four hours a day or at night.
"Nobody under 18 should be carrying heavy cargoes," said Vicky Bowman, a former British ambassador who now runs the Yangon-based Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business.
Outside of construction, child labour is most visible in hospitality, with even small children serving food in Myanmar's ubiquitous tea shops.
Many children also work in fish farming and processing.