Yangon’s lost children

Fourteen-year-old Ma Ei Mon’s tidy hair and thanaka-daubed face belie her troubled past and confused reality: Barely a teenager, she could be studying at school, but she is already working and living far from home.

Ma Ei Mon hails from Ayeyarwady Region. She was brought to Yangon by her aunt two years ago to work as a domestic helper.

“When I came, I had no idea what my job would be, let alone which house I would have to work in,” she said.

Look into many of Yangon’s houses and you will find children and teenagers like Ma Ei Mon, working for families as domestic help or nannies. They are often forced to live in cramped, dank and sometimes dangerous conditions, while some host families can be abusive.

Regional demand for cheap adult labour has seen many of the country’s available workers depart Myanmar for better wages abroad, leaving a shortage of domestic help available in its bigger cities.

Rural poverty coupled with a growing urban middle class seeking cheap household help drives the trade, which is often facilitated by brokers.

Maids can expect to earn from K35,000 to K60,000 monthly, with their food and accommodation also provided. Brokers – normally neighbours with family in the city – entice poor parents with three months’ salary upfront to send their children away. The broker charges the employer the equivalent of one month’s wage.

Once the child is settled in the job, it is common for parents or relatives to come and collect six months’ or one year’s salary upfront from the employer. The children often see nothing of the money.

But many go willingly, in part out of a sense of obligation to help their family through tough financial times. Poverty and a lack of schools mean drop-out rates are high in rural areas. Unable to improve their lot through education, children see moving to the city as an opportunity to escape village life.

For many young domestic workers, the dislocation from their families and former lives is too much. Like 14-year-old Ma Myo Myo, they run away.

“When I first arrived there, I felt scared,” she said. “I didn’t know how much money my mother took from the family I worked for as my wage. She told me to call back after the contract was finished but I didn’t even know how many months I was employed for.”

Work started at 5am, when she got up to clean the house, and ended at 10pm. She said she could rest a little while if all the work was finished but any mistakes were punished with either a beating or shouting.

“I had to work at two homes, washing clothes and helping in the kitchen. One house had six people, and the other had four. They changed their clothes three times a day. I don’t know why they changed their clothes so frequently.”

After nine months in Yangon, Ma Myo Myo ran away but was found by her employers and returned to her parents, she said. Her mother then sent her with a broker to another home, where she has worked for the past three months as a babysitter.

Violence at home has always been part of Ma Myo Myo’s life. “At my home, my mum beat me, and I was beaten for making mistakes in the home I worked at. I ran away from them because they beat me too much.”

For some child maids, working in new homes can be dangerous: A man from Bahan township’s Ko Min Ko Chin ward is currently being prosecuted for torturing and beating a 14-year-old housemaid.

But while the children typically work long hours in difficult circumstances, employers also list a litany of complaints.

Social networking site Facebook is regularly a platform for stories of maids misbehaving. One recent report doing the rounds is of two babysitters feeding a strong antihistamine – Barmeton – to their young charge every day to make the child drowsy, so they had more time to talk on their phones to their boyfriends.

More often, the complaints are over money and flighty workers.

“I hired two children, both older than 12, to help at home,” said a housewife from Yangon’s Kamaryut township. “They are not children but neither are they adults. They don’t understand household work or babysitting. But I need help and if they are honest there’s always a way to make it work.

“Some children who have worked in many homes are difficult to control and can be a real headache,” she said. “I want to hire experienced maids but they are very difficult to find.”

Brokers and parents also collude to cheat employers. The child will often be told to change jobs once they have worked off the three months’ advance salary – or sooner – to enable the broker to get another fee.

Ma Win Nandar Myint, a housewife in East Dagon township, said she recently hired a maid and paid three months’ salary in advance. After one month, the girl asked to go home to visit her aunty but never returned. When Ma Win Nandar Myint called her parents, they said she didn’t want to work at her house anymore and refused to pay back the money.

After five months, she has been unable to find another babysitter and housemaid to help look after her five-month-old baby girl.

“I have been looking since my daughter was born but have found no one. I even contacted my relatives to bring someone from our village, as well as through brokers – but when I used one I was cheated,” she said.

Ma Win Nandar Myint asked relatives in her native village in Rakhine State’s Taunggup township to send someone, with no success.

Her family has told her that the young women in Taunggup would rather work at garment factories, which offers a similar or higher salary but with more freedom. Given its association with poverty and servitude, many find working as a domestic helper or nanny embarrassing.

Ma Soe Thandar, an 18-year-old garment worker from Ayeyarwady Region’s Mawlamyinegyun township, said factory work was preferable and easy to get. Factories are always looking for more workers and set low education requirements.

There are no figures for the number of child domestic workers or nannies but more than half-a-million 10-to-14-year-olds were employed when the 2014 census was conducted. More than half of all 15-to-19-year-olds, meanwhile, were either in work or looking for it.

International organisations such as Save the Children, World Vision, UNICEF and other civil society groups are working with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement to reduce child labour and ensure those who do work are properly protected.

According to UNICEF, the minimum age for child employment varies across industries but in most sectors it is permitted from age 13, with children under 15 only allowed to work a maximum of four hours a day. However, there is no single piece of legislation in place to protect working children and ensure their health and safety on the job.

UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Social Welfare to overhaul the child law and has recommended that the minimum working age be set at 14 years.

Relief and Resettlement Department deputy director general Daw San San Aye said the new law would protect the rights of working children.

However, prosecution is also possible if there is a breach of the existing Child Law, which was enacted in 1993.

Dr Aung Myat Kyaw Sein, a professor of psychology at Mawlamyine University, said the long-term impacts on children who are abused in the workplace are serious.

“Some people hire children by promising to provide medical care, education, food, more or less as a family member,” he said. “But often they are exploited, overworked and harshly punished. This can cause serious mental and physical suffering.”

Source: Myanmar Times

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