YANGON: Twelve-year-old Myat Noe dashes between tables taking orders and sweeping up cigarette butts, working for around a dollar a day in Myanmar, which has one of the worst records for child labour in the world.
There are millions like Myat Noe — child workers are widely accepted in the former junta-ruled nation — who prop up everything from tea rooms to factories. But pressure is building for a change of attitude and law.
Weeks away from the landmark November 8 election a coalition of campaign groups are seizing the opportunity for debate and urging lawmakers to provide universal, compulsory and free education within five years.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, is expected to make major gains in the election, and has identified education as the cornerstone in reducing poverty, but so far hasn’t committed to this demand.
A quick glance along Yangon’s streets reveals there is some way to go.
Streetside tea shops — the busy jumbles of plastic tables and chairs usually patronised by chain-smoking men — are mostly staffed by children, some as young as seven-years-old.
“I come from the countryside and I have to help my parents, because they don’t have enough money,” Myat Noe — whose name has been changed to protect her identity — told AFP.
Like many of the child workers in Yangon she comes from one of Myanmar’s poor ethnic minority groups and has worked for around a dollar a day since she was nine.
Child workers often toil 14 hours a day, seven days a week, sleeping in large dormitories with other children or on makeshift beds made from the plastic tables which they wait on by day.
There is no time for school let alone play, condemning most child workers to a lifetime of manual labour and poverty.
According to data from the 2014 census, Myat Noe is one of an estimated 4.4 million under-18s who do not attend school in Myanmar.
The impoverished country is the world’s seventh worst for child labour, according to risk analysts Verisk Maplecroft, just ahead of India and Liberia.
The rates look set to rise as the economy booms four years after opening up to the world, with new hotels, cafes and factories providing jobs to willing workers, irrespective of age.
A tangle of labor laws do not ban children from work, says Piyamal Pichaiwongse of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Yangon.
“There’s nothing clear on the age at which you can start work and the laws are not applied,” she says.
In 2013, Myanmar joined an ILO convention which outlaws the worst forms of child labor such as forced work, including in the army or sex industry.
The government says it wants to address the situation but until a binding law is crafted, children will remain ever-present in the workforce.
“As parents are poor, they send their kids to tea shops to make money,” Win Shein, of Myanmar’s labour ministry, told AFP.