Child labor in Burma

Children laying bricks at the Kandawgyi ‘Relaxation Zone’
Screenshot of the Myanmar Times’ “In beautifying and updating the capital city of Rangoon, a park has been upgraded” article.

Children laying bricks at the Kandawgyi ‘Relaxation Zone’

Closeup of a child laboring in laying bricks.

The Myanmar Times, an English language weekly launched in 2000, is one of few newspapers from Burma available online, in both English and Burmese. Unfortunately, fewer articles appear on the English version than on the Burmese version of the website.

Today, while I was reading the Burmese business section, I noticed something odd. In the photograph, by Hein Lat Aung, was a child was laying bricks for the Kandawgyi “Relaxation Zone”. Underneath the picture, the captions run “In order to make the grassy lawns of the Kandawgyi Garden [in Rangoon] more beautiful and neat, bricks have been laid and arranged inside the Garden.”

Only in 2004, Myanmar Times quoted the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child’s report on Burma:

“The committee notes that the 1993 Child Law prohibits child labour, but is deeply concerned that economic exploitation is extremely widespread in Myanmar and that children may be working long hours at young ages,” the report said.

It also stresses the issue of child labor and human rights violations, albeit watered down:

The suggestions, offered in response to the delegation’s presentation in Geneva, expressed concerns about child labour, child abuse, human trafficking, discrimination and other human rights issues involving children.

Yet, the Child Law, passed by SLORC on July 14, 1993 and applicable to everyone under the age of 18, stresses the “voluntary choice” of children to labor in the following excerpt:

24. (a) Every child has –

(i) the right to engage in work in accordance with law and of his own volition-

(ii) the right to hours of employment, rest and leisure and other reliefs prescribed by law;

(b) The Ministry of Labour shall protect and safeguard in accordance with law to ensure safety of children employees at the place of work and prevention of infringement and loss of their rights.

Burma is one of a serial offender of forced labor rules in the International Labour Organization, under pressure to end its practice of forced labor (an estimated 800,000 have been forced to work). However, there are no laws against child labor. Perhaps it is because I am an American who does not see children of seven or eight performing menial labor. But doesn’t child labor automatically violate one of the Child Law’s edicts: “Every child has the right to rest and leisure and to engage in play”? Unfortunately, child labor as well as forced labor are here to stay, for the time being, at least in Burma and other undeveloped nations. Child labor will remain prevalent, even if laws are passed to prevent this. After all, even the United States of America, faced the problem of child labor well into the 1900s, until prosperity reached millions of more Americans.

The Child Law is a nice thought but one that is inevitably impractical in a society ridden with tremendous poverty and blight.

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