Good news this week that the government is promising to clamp down on the use of child labour in the workplace.

But while drawing attention to the exploitation of children under the age of 14 by businesses is welcome, the issue of child workers in private homes all too often remains hidden.

As is common in later life, the social division in Myanmar between males working outside the home and females within it is evident among child workers.

It is all too easy to spot the small boys working in teashops, beer stations and other public places around the country.

Less obvious, but in a number of ways more open to abuse and exploitation because of the hidden nature of their employment, are the large number of young girls working as maids behind closed doors.

Increasing attention is rightly being given in Myanmar to the issue of human trafficking. Legal moves have also been made recently, with mixed effect, in an attempt to prevent the abuse of Myanmar maids working abroad – particularly in Singapore.

But the ongoing and all-too-often ignored issue of girl house-workers being abused and exploited domestically needs greater focus and public discussion.

There are no official figures available for the number of child maids in Myanmar, but one in five children in Myanmar aged 10 to 17 go to work instead of school according to figures from a recently published census report on employment.

The practice of using girls as domestic help is not only widespread but also widely considered acceptable. In some situations it is seen as a form of social welfare – providing accommodation and employment for young people from impoverished backgrounds.

Yet while some domestic employers certainly have good intentions, the potential for abuse is clear. While cases of extreme exploitation or physical, emotional and sexual abuse do occasionally emerge, it is recognised that the vast number of such cases go unreported and unpunished.

When the government reminded business owners this week that they must avoid hiring children under the age of 14 – or face fines ranging from K5 million to K10 million, up to six months in prison, or both – officials were addressing hoteliers, restaurateurs, owners of small and medium-sized factories, and shopkeepers.

But it is also important to address middle-class Myanmar housewives when talking about such matters and remind them that they too have a duty to avoid exploiting young workers.

Laws aimed at businesses seek to prevent children from working in dangerous environments including kitchens, but cooking duties are a common part of a maid’s workload.

Likewise the law, even if it is rarely applied, bans businesses from employing children aged 14 to 16 for more than four hours a day. How many householders facilitate or allow such part-time work from their young maids?

It is certainly true that under Myanmar’s current economic conditions, the sudden outlawing of employment of under-18s or -16s is impractical, and could lead to financial destitution for many young people and their families.

But that should not be used as an excuse to justify the exploitation of children, and every effort must be made to end the cycle of child labour as soon as possible.

Addressing business owners on the issue, U Aung Naing, deputy director of the Factory and General Labour Laws Inspection Department under the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Populations, stressed the legal obligations regarding child labour.

He also noted, “According to international conventions, people under 18 years old are regarded as children, but this is not okay for our developing country. If we don’t hire children, they will lose job opportunities, and they and their families will have trouble earning a living,” he said.

But taking children out of education and sending them to work in unskilled jobs only exacerbates family poverty in the long term. Consigning young girls to a lifetime of domestic labour further robs the country of the opportunities for greater gender equality in the public sphere it desperately needs to flourish.

Child labour in domestic situations should also be considered an important issue when it comes to ethnic equality. It is sadly true that some families, regardless of ethnic background, consider it a child’s duty to provide for their family at whatever cost to the child.

But there has also developed a widespread practice among some ethnic communities of sending children to work for families in the city in the belief this will automatically give them a better life. This is something that must be addressed.

Such practices are understandable given the extreme poverty suffered by many in rural areas. Some children in these situations are indeed allowed by the families they work for to also go to school.

But the long-term social and cultural consequences of sending children out of their communities, away from their native language, of keeping them out of education, and of sending them into potentially abusive situations should be considered a matter of urgent importance by anyone who is serious about protecting the rights and future of this country’s many ethnic groups.

Above all, though, we must remember the individual children affected, whatever their gender or ethnic background.

It is hugely positive to see the government addressing the exploitation of children by businesses, but we must not forget those exploited in the home.

Link: http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/opinion/21048-the-fight-against-child-labour-begin-at-home-1.html