Every day from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Soe Min Lwin takes orders, serves food and washes dishes at a tea shop in Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon. Every night, he climbs onto a wooden table and falls asleep.
He’s 12, 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, shop owner Ko Thar Thint, lets him out of work
six hours a week 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.”
Ko Thar Thint has a 9-year-old son, but when asked if he would let him leave school at age 12 and go to work too, he said no. “These kids have to work because their families don’t have enough money,”
he said, referring to the five children who work for him. “My son is luckier than [they are], so he doesn’t need to work yet.”
Children have long been pillars of Myanmar’s
economy, with many 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.
Since Myanmar began major economic and political reforms in 2011, more and more children have moved from the country’s rural areas to cities, he said. “A lot of shops and restaurants opened up in the cities, and they need
a cheap and reliable labor force,” he said. “And a lot more people … have more disposable income, so they demand more services, which also requires more labor.”