Every day from 6 am to 9 pm, Soe Min Lwin takes orders, serves food and washes dishes at a tea shop in Yangon, Myanmar. Every night, he climbs onto a wooden table and falls asleep. He is 12 years old, and by earning just over a dollar a day, he is his family’s main breadwinner.
“When I don’t work,” he said softly, “sometimes [my family] is all right, but sometimes they’re not. It depends on whether my stepfather can find work. He doesn’t have a steady job.”
Soe Min Lwin’s boss gives him six hours a week off work to attend classes held by the Myanmar Mobile Education Project. But he insists that hiring children like Soe Min Lwin is not unfair labor.
“We don’t torture these kids or force them to work,” he said. “We take them in and give them work so they can support their families. And here, they have a place to live and eat. If we didn’t take them in, they might end up in a worse place.”
Child labour has been prevalent in Myanmar for a long time, with many children working as housecleaners, factory hands and shop assistants. But their role has come under increasing international scrutiny as the country opens up after five decades of military dictatorship.
Tim Aye-Hardy is the founder and director of the Myanmar Mobile Education Project, which provides free informal education to 400 children working in tea shops. According to him, “The issue itself is culturally accepted, because everywhere you go in this country, we see children working.”
The Myanmar Government recognise that child labor is a big problem, but also say that it is a result of poverty, with children needing to work to help their families make money. Until the country develops and the issue of poverty is addressed, then child labour will continue to be important for poor families.
Meanwhile, at Soe Min Lwin’s home, 55 miles north of Yangon, his $35 monthly salary goes a long way. His family owes money for rice, and each sack costs $20. A sack of rice lasts his mother, stepfather, two younger brothers and grandmother one month.
“It’s not that I want them to work,” said his mother, Naw El Shee. “Kids shouldn’t be far away from their parents. They could be corrupted. I let Soe work only because we’re not doing well.”
- Pray for Myanmar, that, as it opens to outside investment, the resulting new jobs and incomes will go a long way to reducing poverty and child labour.
- Pray for the government to be serious about enforcing laws that forbid the use of child labour.
- Pray for children and families caught in poverty, for hope and a way out of the poverty cycle.
- Pray for a move of the Holy Spirit in Myanmar, that many will hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and come to know His life and love.
Proverbs 31 vs 8-9: “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”