‘I’ll never ask my son to work again’ – children risk severe injury in Myanmar’s factories as families drown in debt

Twelve-year-old Chit Min Htwe couldn’t stand to see his parents struggling in debt, so he left school to work in a factory in Yangon’s Shwe Lin Ban industrial zone.

A month after starting his new job late last year he got his hand trapped in a machine, mangling it so badly that he lost three fingers.

During a recent visit by Myanmar Now to the simple hut where he lives in a squatter community with his parents and younger brother, Chit Min Htwe was lying under a mosquito net.

He used to do his homework around this time, now he stares despondently at his bandaged hand. He spent two months in hospital after surgeons managed to reattach his thumb and forefinger.

“I thought things would be alright if all three of us worked,” he told Myanmar Now. But the accident put an end to his hopes of helping his parents out of debt.

“I didn’t even save any money, everything I earned had to go the debt collector,” he said.  

An estimated 600,000 child laborers in Myanmar are involved in hazardous work, according to figures from the International Labour Organization (ILO).

For children like Chit Min Htwe the risks of ending up in a dangerous job are even higher; families in debt are more likely to have a child in work than those who are debt-free, a 2015 ILO survey found.

Thirteen-hour days

Chit Min Htwe’s parents make a meagre living selling traditional snacks around the industrial zone off the back of a bicycle.

Before the boy started his job, debt collectors visited their home frequently, often shortly after he arrived home from school while his parents were out working.

Then one day he got a visit from a man from the locally-owned Four Ocean factory, which supplies heavy duty bags used to pack things like rice and sand.

The man offered him a job working 13-hour days from 6.30am each morning, and said he could earn up to 200,000 kyats a month.

His parents didn’t like the idea of him working at first, he said, but he insisted.  

His main duty was to pack glue pellets, which are used to seal industrial packaging, into bags. Sometimes he had to feed old bags into a plastic melting machine.

It was this contraption that would take his fingers.

“I will never ask my son to work again,” said Win Oo, his father.

Mg Chit Min Htwe’s family as seen on December 10. Mg Chit Min Htwe’s fater U Win Oo said he regrets allowing his son to work (Photo by Kay Zun Nwe/ Myanmar Now)

When he approached the factory after the accident, a representative told him the family could “do whatever we liked and complain to whoever we liked,” said Win Oo.

“It hurts me so badly that they responded like this when my son was injured so badly,” he said.

‘The interest has increased’

The factory did give the family just over 900,000 kyats, just under $600, for expenses related to his stay in hospital. But that didn’t cover everything, which came to around 1.7 million kyats, said Daw Nilar, the boy’s mother.

The cost drove the couple even further into debt, she added. “We had to borrow money with interest from people around the neighborhood… now the interest has increased,” she said.

The factory’s owner, Yan Kyu Peng, was fined 2.5 million kyat last month.

That money will go to the government; the family are still seeking compensation.

And the owner avoided a potential three month prison sentence under a 1951 factories law.

In fact there is no record of any factory owner receiving a jail term under the law, said U Htay a labour rights lawyer.

Senior staff members at Four Ocean declined Myanmar’s Now request for an interview during a recent visit to the factory.

The machine crushed Mg Chit Min Htwe’s 3 fingers and severed his thumb and forefinger in half (Photo by Kay Zun Nwe/ Myanmar Now)

Dust, fumes, chemicals

An official from the Ministry of Labour, who requested anonymity, said child labour was almost ubiquitous in Myanmar’s industrial sector.

“Since this is happening in almost every factory, we need to watch out all the time,” he told Myanmar Now.

Myanmar has 1.1 million child labourers, more than half of whom are exposed to dangers from dust, harmful fumes, machinery, extreme temperatures and chemicals. 

Under the 1951 labour law, child laborers from 14-16 years old are allowed to work under certain conditions, while those under 14 are forbidden to join the workforce.

The government does not record data on the number of children injured by accidents at work.

But Prof. Dr Khin Maung Myint, of the orthopaedics department at Yangon General Hospital says child labourers are frequently admitted there.

Around three quarter of the accidents in industrial zones involve injuries to the hands, the doctor said.

‘Who will employ me now?’

The number of children under 14 working at factories or tea shops has drastically increased in recent years, said U Htay, who served for three years at the Labour Arbitration Council.

Not only do most factories routinely flout the law, he added, but opening a case against them is difficult because the police can only act on the advice of the Ministry of Labour.

“It is very difficult for the workers to open a case at the police station. They just don’t accept the complaint,” he said.

Mg Chit Min Htwe’s family home at illegal squatting ward near Shwe Lin Ban industrial zone in Hlaing Tharyar, Yangon (Photo by Kay Zun Nwe/ Myanmar Now)

While conditions and pay are bad, most parents are grateful for the opportunity for their children to work, said U Win Maung, a regional member of parliament for Hlaing Tharyar.

“If those children can’t get jobs at a factory, then they become street kids who collect garbage,” he said.

Children are among 150,000 people who work in Hlaing Thayar’s industrial zone, according to a recent survey, said Win Maung.

Chit Min Htwe may have suffered a horrific experience, but he still wants to support his parents.  

“My father told me not to work again, he asked me to enter the monkhood,” he said. “I want to work but who is going to employ me now?” he added, glancing at his white bandages.

He has no ambitions to become a captain or an engineer, like other children, he said, but he wants to get his family out of this squatting community.

“When I grow up, I want to get my mother and father out of this ward. There are plots in Shwe Pyi Thar,” he said, referring to another industrial area of Yangon.

“I will buy a plot for my mother to live there.”

Related Articles

Back to top button