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RIGHTS-BURMA: When Hard Times Hit, Some Children Go to Factories

Mon Mon Myat

RANGOON, Feb 15 2010 (IPS) - Fifteen-year-old Cho Cho Thet knows little about the world outside of the garments factory where she works.

It is common to find young people working in factories in Rangoon. Credit: Mon Mon Myat/IPS

It is common to find young people working in factories in Rangoon. Credit: Mon Mon Myat/IPS

Thet works 14 hours each day – from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. – seven days a week, but receives a salary of only 35,000 kyat (35 U.S. dollars) a month. The factory owner provides free accommodation and meals that include rice and vegetables.

“Working under a roof is better than working in the rice field under the sun or the rain. I don’t feel tired at all here,” Thet told IPS. The girl was recently promoted from helper to operator after two years.

When she was in second grade, Thet was pulled out from school by her mother so she could take care of her younger sister. After her mother died and her father left home, Thet, the eldest in the family, had no choice but to work.

“I had to work the whole day standing in the paddy field to grow rice whether it was raining or sunny,” she said, recalling her life in their village, a three- hour drive from Rangoon.

She was later able to convince her grandmother to send her to the factory where her aunt was working. “I can’t make enough money if I live in the village. There is no regular income, no job except in the farming season,” Thet said.

May Thu Aung, owner of the garments factory, refused to accept Thet because the girl was too young then. Thet’s grandmother left her to work as a babysitter in Aung’s house. Thet said she did not like the job “because I did not even want to take care of my own sister.” After a few months, she was finally able to work in the factory.

“There are many young people applying for jobs in the factory, although we try to reject underage children. If we reject them today, they will come again next week with a new application in which they changed their age,” Aung said.

Aung is one of several entrepreneurs who set up a garments factory in 1996 when the market-oriented economy kicked off. She started out with 150 workers, and this number has doubled in 14 years.

Aung’s factory is situated in an industrial zone at the outskirts of east Rangoon, Burma’s former capital. It is one of the 21 industrial zones set up by the Burmese military government after the 1988 coup. According to 2006 data, there are more than 43,000 privately owned factories that are engaged in textile manufacturing, food processing, steel production, plastic and other industrial production. About 98 percent of industries are private enterprises.

These have provided many job opportunities for people from the rural areas who previously could not find work after the farming season. Many youngsters work in the informal sector as well.

Working conditions in many factories do not comply with international labour standards on health and safety, child labour, working hours and pay. A recent labour dispute in a privately owned garments factory highlighted this problem. The workers were calling for higher wages and better working conditions.

“The government was placed in a situation where it had to play two roles, which is a difficult position, and it is also not a good situation for the workers,” Steve Marshall, liaison officer of the International Labour Organization (ILO) here, said in an interview.

He suggested that the employer, workers and the government sit down and negotiate for a win-win situation for all those involved, much like the usual negotiations in other societies. “They need to find out what can be negotiated and resolved”, Marshall said.

Although the ILO maintains a presence in Burma, it operates under a very restricted mandate and only in the areas of forced labour, child soldiers and freedom of association. When it comes to matters such as workplace health and safety and child labour, Marshall said the ILO “sees what is happening and we have … a lot of expertise where we could assist but under the legal situation we are simply not allowed to do so.”

The global economic downturn is compounding Burma’s problems on poor working conditions and low pay. Many export-oriented factories were affected by the recession, one of them Aung’s factory, which is a sub- contractor for clothing companies that export to the Britain, Germany and Spain.

“Clothing orders decreased by 75 percent because we had no orders for eight months in 2009,” Aung said. “It is quite difficult for us to keep running the factory with 300 workers because we can’t afford such a big cost.”

Last year, about 60 workers left Aung’s factory to look for better jobs.

“There are many karaoke bars and massage parlors in (Rangoon) where the young girls can make more money than if they work in the factory. How can I stop them?” Aung said. For Thet, however, working in the garments factory where she has many friends is safer than working as an entertainer. She said she could still play with the young workers in the factory compound after they finish work at 9 p.m.

“We sometimes play hide-and-seek; sometimes we sing and dance,” Thet explained. “What I enjoy most is when my boss shows movies in the compound,” she said, adding that she has to sacrifice sleep on these occasions.

“I’m a heavy sleeper. If I watch a movie till late at night, I would wake up 15 minutes before (the start of my work), shower and go straight to work. I would miss breakfast that morning,” Thet said with a little laugh.

The girl still dreams of going back to school, something she is constantly reminded of when she sees other children outside the factory on their way to school. “I miss my friends in school. I still want to study if I don’t need to work.”

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