The world is filled with boys and girls who lose their childhoods to hard labor. Roughly 215 million children on the planet work, according to the International Labor Organization, and more than half have jobs the ILO deems “hazardous.”
That children slave away in Congo mines or stitch blouses in Bangladesh is known to everyone who follows the news.
But in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation also known as Burma, child labor is not a minor social blight. It is a pillar of the economy. And at this unique moment in the nation’s history, that economy is set to explode.
In international rankings, Myanmar is often cast alongside nations mired in anarchy or tyranny. Maplecroft, the U.K. risk analysis firm, ranks Myanmar’s child labor problem as the worst on the planet, worse even than in North Korea or Somalia.
Only two years have passed since Myanmar’s military junta handed power to a partially elected parliament stacked with army loyalists in a grand experiment with liberalization. But what a difference two years can make: The police state is being dismantled, dissidents have been freed and decades-old Western sanctions have melted away. Long quarantined by generals, the growth-stunted nation has cut a sudden U-turn and now careens, for better or worse, into the globalized 21st century.
With the White House acting as cheerleader, American conglomerates are suddenly urged to invest in Myanmar’s economy, a fixer-upper ruined by decades of warfare and misrule.
But when they get here, they will find a labor force propped up by underage toil.
According to the United Nations, more than one-third of Myanmar’s children (defined as kids aged 7 to 16) have jobs. [..]
Myanmar’s child labor epidemic is a symptom of several institutional maladies: generational poverty, run-down hospitals and broke schools. When parents can’t afford rice or rent on their own, kids work. When Mom or Dad succumbs to an (often treatable) illness, kids work. When teachers abandon schools, kids work.
“Enrollment in primary school is free of charge. But the schools aren’t fully funded by the government. This brings hidden costs,” said Thanda Kyaw, a senior program adviser with Save the Children’s operations in Myanmar. “Parents are asked to pay for water bills or furniture. The teachers have to beg for donations … and children with no money won’t come to school out of embarrassment.”
Article prepared by Klaus Cooper