MYANMAR: His back bent under a heavy load of bricks and gravel, the boy trudges towards an unfinished water tank under the morning sun, starting his long day as a mason’s assistant.
Only 13, Aye Min is already a construction worker, having left school three years ago to help support his family. “It’s dangerous (work). I’ve worked on the seventh floor before; I was very scared. If I had fallen, I’d have died,” he recalled.
Before he started working for his uncle’s construction firm, he was selling ice lollies around his neighbourhood. Three years of labour have robbed him of an ordinary childhood, and it has been a hard life – he works from morning until late, sometimes 8pm.
With money problems at home, however, he has little choice. He said: “If I don’t work, then I won’t get money. I need to work.”
His plight is one shared by many youngsters in Myanmar, where one in five children aged 10 to 17 are working instead of attending school, stated a government report in 2015. The real number is estimated to be higher.
Other reports have suggested that some 1.2 million children aged five and above are trapped in the country’s illegal labour market, with some toiling for up to 14 hours a day, as the Channel NewsAsia programme Get Real found out.
It is little wonder that Myanmar has a reputation for being one of the worst countries for underage labour - an image the government is striving to shed, as it made the problem's eradication a top priority in recent years. (Watch the episode here.)
But this is far easier said than done.
WATCH: The children's stories (4:49)
THE PRICE OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Ms Piyamal Pichaiwongse, the International Labour Organisation’s deputy liaison officer in Yangon, said this child labour problem started to manifest itself only when the country began to open up.
Everywhere I go, in tea shops, in construction, I see children working. And that’s quite phenomenal.
“Child labour is about poverty, attitudes (and) culture change. There are so many actors that are contributing to the problem," she said.
The economic boom in Myanmar, which began its transition from military-governed isolation to democratic rule in 2011, has fuelled this crisis as companies exploit cheap child labour to save costs.
Food establishments, for example, pay child workers US$0.30 (S$0.40) an hour, compared with US$0.43 an hour for an adult.
And the number of young workers continues to rise as new hotels, cafes, factories and other businesses rush to provide jobs for recruits like Aye Min, regardless of their age.
Aye Min would have preferred to study, letting on that he did well in school and that mathematics was his favourite subject. But his father’s income from carpentry work is irregular.
“I can’t go to school with my dad’s income alone. I give all my salary to the family,” said the teenager, the youngest member of his uncle’s construction team.
He does not complain about the work, though it is tiring, but he admits to feeling “uneducated”. He said: “I feel inferior. Other kids are going to school, but I can’t. I feel sad.”
GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE
In 2016, the National League for Democracy-led government made eradicating child labour one of its priorities, and has been drafting and amending labour laws as part of a 15-year plan to combat the problem.
Senior party member May Win Myint said at the time: “If we can’t solve this problem, there won’t be any development in our country because they’ll be the people serving the country in the future. They need to be educated to do that.”
So the government amended the Factories Act, prohibiting children below 14 years old from working in factories. The previous minimum age was 13.
It is also illegal to employ children younger than 16 years old on a full-time basis, and employers who violate this law face up to three months in jail and a fine.
But many underage children are still working in factories, keeping the Ministry of Labour busy.
Inspector Soe Nyi Nyi from the Factory and General Labour Law Inspection Department said it usually cautions errant employers, issuing them with a prohibited notice that the child is not allowed to work.
Such employers, however, have found ways to evade detection, playing cat and mouse when the inspectors come knocking.
Hay Marn, 16, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, has been working full-time at a garment factory in the Hlaing Thar Yar Industrial Zone outside Yangon since she was 12.
For four years, she had been able to dodge the inspectors, who failed repeatedly to discover any of the underage children in the factory.
“(The inspectors) first came four to five months after we started work. I got goosebumps; my heart was beating very fast,” she recounted.
While the inspector was still at the top floor, the boss would come down and tell me: ‘The inspector is here. All children must go and hide in the toilet.’
That is what she did each time, so as to earn US$3 for every 10-hour shift. The salary cannot compensate for the “tiring” workload, she said, adding: “We get scolded if the clothes aren’t done.”
AN UPHILL STRUGGLE
Mr U Nyunt Win, the director-general of the Factory and General Labour Law Inspection Department, said its inspectors can cover only a quarter of the country, given that it has 81 offices to oversee 330 towns.
And despite plans to further tighten legislation and subsidise education to tackle child labour, a tangle of labour laws and muddling bureaucracy have made it even more of an uphill struggle.
“Under the law, inspectors can only inspect factories and workplaces,” added the director-general.
“We can’t catch children working in the agricultural sector even if we see them. In a mining field, even if we see a child cracking rocks, we can’t do anything.”
Myanmar’s economy is also rife with unregistered businesses, which are neither monitored nor taxed by the government. This informal sector, including agricultural activities, hires 73 per cent of the total workforce.
With the lack of regulation, these businesses use children as street vendors, waste collectors, miners and manual labourers.
At a tender age, they are also at the mercy of employers and can be at risk of physical abuse - especially those who work as domestic workers.
ABUSE THAT HAPPENS
Khine Hnin Wai, 13, an orphan who was living with her grandmother, took a job in Yangon as a domestic worker for extra income. But her work turned into a nightmare just a day after she arrived.
“They pressed a hot iron on my skin and poured hot water on me,” she recounted of what happened when she had accidentally put tap water into the baby’s bottle instead of boiling water.
Her employers also hit her every day, even poking her with needles and scissors. She added: “I wanted to go home. I wanted to commit suicide.”
A kind Samaritan at the local market noticed her injuries and went to the police, leading to her rescue after a month of abuse.
The girl, who still bears the scars of that violence, was brought to a training school and got to resume her studies. But she refuses to return to her village, fearing she would be sent back to work.
“I’d have to quit school if I return to my grandma. I’m in the middle of the school year, so I’d like to complete my studies first. I want to be a teacher after I graduate,” she said.
PARENTS' HARD DECISIONS
But the horror stories of abuse - including that of an eight-year-old domestic worker who was repeatedly stripped naked and beaten in the household of a military lawmaker - have done little to stop desperate families from sending their children to work.
Peanut farmer Aung Win Thein and his wife Mya Aye Phaw struggled with their decision to send their daughter Hwa Shie, 15, to Yangon to work as a domestic helper, worried that she might even fall victim to human trafficking.
But prompted by poverty, a US$1,500 loan and the mounting medical bills for one of their six children who has a chronic disability, the parents find themselves with few options.
“Hwa Shie knows that we have difficulty feeding ourselves. Day by day, it’s getting worse,” said her mother.
For her part, the teenager has resigned herself to helping out her family. “I feel sad … I’m interested in studying. But my mother says we have difficulties and have nothing to eat, so I have to go,” she said.
“I’ll miss my family members. I’ll miss my school. I’ll come back after settling our debt.”
She will earn US$100 a month, but has not met her employer yet and has never worked before. “I’m a bit scared,” admitted Hwa Shie on the day she bade farewell to her family.
NEEDED: BETTER SCHOOLS, WIDER SOCIETAL EFFORTS
To help stop children from working, their schools must improve, observers say. But Myanmar is facing an educational crisis. Its education system, based on rote learning, has not been overhauled in decades.
One-third of the country’s children are not enrolled in school, and more than half drop out before completing compulsory primary education. Schools are ill-equipped, the teachers are underpaid, and students often graduate without hireable skills.
The government has recognised the problem and has begun to act, rebuilding the education system from scratch.
But instead of just waiting for gradual change to be implemented, some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have forged ahead to provide free schooling and scholarships to help child workers.
Myanmar-based NGO Scholarships for Street Kids compensates parents for the income they lose from their child leaving work. It has helped around 300 children so far.
Social activist Tim Aye-Hardy founded the Myanmar Mobile Education Project (MyME), providing free informal education targeted at the nation’s child labourers. This scheme focuses on basic literacy, critical thinking, maths and computer knowledge – some of the key skills employers seek.
He believes that children should be in schools, but that the existing education system is inadequate to prepare them for the workforce.
“The ones who go through school end up working in the same tea shop as other workers who only complete first or second grade. So it’s a no-brainer for the parents,” he told news and business magazine Frontier Myanmar.
His concern is that the children working today for their US$1 to US$2 daily income will be unable to sustain themselves by the time they enter their 20s. “And they won’t be able to contribute towards the economy,” he told Get Real.
So instead of pointing fingers at the parents (and) the tea shop owners, let’s bring everybody together. It’s all of our responsibility.
He has managed to convince some tea shop owners to allow their young workers to take classes on their premises after work. Since its launch in 2014, MyME has expanded its programme to over 3,000 children.
While these child labourers are getting a second shot at education, it might be too late for others like Aye Min, who believes that he now faces a more viable future aspiring to be a mason than returning to school.
“It has been three years (since I started working). I don’t have the will to study any more,” he said. “I’ll learn masonry. I want to do a masonry business.”
Watch this episode of Get Real here.