Nati Wai, or "Little King," lugs heavy bundles of fruit from boats to trucks seven days a week. The 15-year-old has worked the Yangon docks since he was 11. In Myanmar, child labor is a pillar of the economy.
Credit: Jonah M. Kessel


YANGON, Myanmar — Little King can’t read or write. Little King can’t tell you the name of his country’s president.

But he’s sturdy enough to balance heavy, spine-bending bundles of cargo atop his skull. Strong enough to tug dinghies loaded with bananas across the Yangon River’s mucky banks at low tide.

Down by the docks, where men work like mules, Little King can earn $3 per day.

He is a breadwinner, the primary supporter of a woman he adores and her two children.

But that woman is his mother. Those children are his sisters. Little King is just a kid.

“I’m not even interested in girls,” said Little King, real name: Nati Wai, son of a deceased dockworker. At the age of 11, he dropped out of school, stepped into his father’s role and became a dockworker himself. That was four years ago. “I already have a woman to take care of,” he said. “That’s my mother.”

The world is filled with boys and girls who lose their childhoods to hard labor. Roughly 215 million children on the planet work, according to the International Labor Organization, and more than half have jobs the ILO deems “hazardous.” 

That children slave away in Congo mines or stitch blouses in Bangladesh is known to everyone who follows the news.

But in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation formerly titled Burma, child labor is not a minor social blight. It is a pillar of the economy. And at this unique moment in the nation’s history, that economy is set to explode.

In international rankings, Myanmar is often cast alongside nations mired in anarchy or tyranny. Maplecroft, the UK risk analysis firm, ranks Myanmar’s child labor problem as the worst on the planet; worse even than in North Korea or Somalia.

And yet North Korea and Somalia are not newly minted darlings of the global investment scene. Somalia did not host a major World Economic Forum summit this year; Myanmar did. No one would say North Korea “feels like when the Berlin Wall came down,” which is how Coca-Cola’s CEO recently described modern-day Myanmar. Last year, US President Barack Obama flew to Myanmar to tell a packed university stadium that its youth could “determine the destiny of the fastest growing region of the world.”

Influential investment guru Jim Rogers, who built his fortune alongside former partner George Soros, was almost effervescent in a chat last summer with Forbes Magazine. “If I could put all of my money into Myanmar, I would,” he said. “They’re right between India on the left, China on the right. Huge natural resources. 60 million people, disciplined and hardworking ... It’s such an exciting opportunity.”

Only two years have passed since Myanmar’s despised military junta handed power to a partially elected parliament stacked with army loyalists in a grand experiment with liberalization. But what a difference two years can make: the police state is being dismantled, dissidents have been freed and decades-old Western sanctions have melted away. Long quarantined by paranoid generals, the growth-stunted nation has cut a sudden U-turn and now careens, for better or worse, into the globalized 21st century.

With the White House acting as cheerleader, American conglomerates are suddenly urged to invest in Myanmar’s economy, a fixer-upper ruined by decades of warfare and misrule.

But when they get here, they will find a labor force propped up by underage toil.

According to the United Nations, more than one-third of Myanmar’s children (defined as kids aged 7 to 16) have jobs.

Oddly enough, Little King feels grateful to be one of them.

There is another boy his age, nickname: Old Face, who lurks around the docks like a hungry wraith. While Little King gets paid to lug bushels of fruit, Old Face scours for loose bananas that have fallen in the mud. “My mom died when I was little. I never got breastfed,” said Old Face, a 15-year-old with a toothpick frame. “They say I’m too weak to lift heavy things.”

Little King — tiny, lithe but muscled — gets to eat all the bananas he wants. He usually takes one bite and throws the half-eaten remainder into the river. “Most of us working here started around 10 or 11 like him,” said Chit Lwin, 28, who sells coconuts by the jetties nearby. “But Little King is quick witted. He even manages to boss around the older boys.”

They call him Little King for a reason.

Just a girl

What happens when an army takes control of a once-prosperous nation for five decades, devours its budget and tosses mere crumbs at its hospitals and schools?

You get Mya Myint Zu, a 12-year-old girl so uneducated that she’s never heard of America.

Each morning before dawn, Mya Myint Zu wakes up in a leaky shack built from discarded signage and bamboo staves. On good mornings, she wakes up to a rooster’s call. On not-so-good mornings, she wakes up to the sound of her sick grandmother hacking up blood.

Her parents are dead.

So to fend off starvation, Mya Myint Zu, bright eyed but spindly and shrunken by malnutrition, grabs a sack and goes prowling for plastic trash.

Forget America. Mya Myint Zu has never even heard of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, which is only 12 miles away from her shanty in a township called South Dagon. Mya Myint Zu’s world is narrowed down to a few miles of industrial slum. She hunts from dawn to sunset for recyclable bottles; a full sack is worth $5. Some days she eats. Some days her earnings go to paying down her grandmother’s crippling $100 debt.

This girl’s ignorance is the human toll of an education system cannibalized by military rulers. Mya Myint Zu has almost zero schooling. That doesn’t mean she’s never been inside a classroom. “I went to kindergarten for a while,” she said. “The teacher would just sit outside and sell snacks for money.” Cho, her 60-year-old grandmother, sent her scavenging at the age of 9. “They say a person without education is blind,” she said. “But I had no choice.”

Myanmar’s child labor epidemic is a symptom of several institutional maladies: generational poverty, run-down hospitals and broke schools. When parents can’t afford rice or rent on their own, kids work. When mom or dad succumbs to an (often treatable) illness, kids work. When teachers abandon schools, kids work.

“Enrollment in primary school is free of charge. But the schools aren’t fully funded by the government. This brings hidden costs,” said Thanda Kyaw, a senior program adviser with Save the Children’s operations in Myanmar. "Parents are asked to pay for water bills or furniture. The teachers need donations … and children with no money won't come to school out of embarrassment."

If the donations dry up, teachers can fail to show up. "There are entire schools without any teachers," Thanda Kyaw said. She cites a school in coastal Rakhine State where mothers pay teachers in bags of rice and bleak villages in other divisions where no one is educated beyond second grade.

Those lucky enough to attend school are hammered with lessons on the military’s role as valiant protector.

As Myanmar’s reform era dawns, the government has floated high-level promises to rebuild broken schools. But the military still maintains a stranglehold on public expenditures. According to government reports, defense spending this year will consume 20 percent of the budget; health care will receive a grim 4 percent and education will get roughly 4.5 percent. This is actually an improvement; for the past two decades, the allocation for education was somewhere between 1 and 2 percent.

In slums like South Dagon, the institutional rot has run so deep that some parents no longer see the value in education. “They think sending their children to school is a waste of time,” said Su Wai Htun, 25, a teacher at a free school run by the National League for Democracy, the party helmed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi.

Su Wai Htun’s school — a clapboard room filled with 1990s-era desktop PCs — belongs to Myanmar’s non-state track of supplementary schools. Most are run for profit. Hers is free and run on donations. Government schools’ teaching quality has fallen so far that kids often can’t pass state tests without private, after-school tutoring sessions. This is where the real education begins. “After government school, they come here,” she said. “We have to re-teach everything.”

Some afternoons, kids fail to show up. So Su Wai Htun hits the streets. “We search for kids, drag them here, wash them up and try to teach them something,” she said. “We plead with parents. ‘Look, you can get 1,000 kyat ($1) per day off the kid now. But you’ll get much more later if they’re educated.’” But it often doesn’t work.

“They tell me to never take their kids away ever again.”

Mya Myint Zu’s grandmother, Cho, keeps her hopes modest. “I just want her to work peacefully in a factory someday,” she said. A roof overhead would protect her daughter from the monsoon downpours that soak her clothes and send her home shivering. Working indoors would spare her from packs of trash-scavenging boys who snatch bottles out of Mya Myint Zu’s hands. “In the next life, I hope to be a boy,” Mya Myint Zu said. “Boys can do whatever they want.”

Cho, shriveled by sickness, is largely confined to her one-room shack. She whiles away long hours on the floor, a creaky bamboo platform hovering just above a fetid swamp. Soupy water seeps through the bamboo slats. There are days when the sun sets, Mya Myint Zu has not yet returned and her mind conjures terrible things.

“Look at her,” Cho said. “She’s just a girl.”

Enter the multinationals

Yangon’s South Okkalapa Industrial Zone is all metal and mud. When the monsoons come, the dirt roads run brown and the sound of rainfall against tin roofs is deafening.

Inside the warren of open-air machine shops, iron is welded, drill bits punch through sheeting, archaic machines sputter black smoke.

The boys here are dirty as chimney sweeps. Coagulated oil streaks their forearms and bare chests. Grease glues their bangs to their foreheads. They are young, cheap and plentiful.

“The little ones just starting out make 1,500 kyat ($1.50) per day,” said Hlaing Inn, the 58-year-old boss of a shop that bores cylinders. He has to shout over the sound of grinding steel. “You can find them wandering around, 10- or 11-year-olds, looking for work. Or you can put out word you’re hiring. There are always more kids in need of money.”

In Myanmar, child labor is endemic in almost every sector that requires unskilled labor. The United Nations Children’s Fund (better known as UNICEF) has compiled a list of jobs notoriously filled by kids. Among them: factory hand, stitcher, courier, house cleaner, beggar and farmer.

In other words, child labor in Myanmar looks a lot like child labor in the United States circa the Industrial Revolution. The kids in South Okkalapa even look like the children in sepia-hued photos shot in industrial America’s factories and farms: bare feet, smudged faces, weary eyes.

“Many children in Myanmar can’t behave as children,” Su Wai Htun said. “They’re more like adults. With adult problems.”

Not all of Myanmar’s children struggle. The elite, who live in high-walled compounds, can send their kids abroad to study. Children from a broad mercantile class — poor by Western standards — can scrape up enough money to attend Myanmar’s ailing network of public secondary schools and universities.

Despite wealth flowing to the top, Myanmar’s current per capita GDP stands at approximately $1,400. According to research by historical economist Angus Maddison, America hit that mark sometime before the Civil War.

But only in 1938, after the US economy had roughly quadrupled, did the president sign the Fair Labor Standards Act, which barred children under 18 from dangerous jobs and children under 16 from working during school hours. That’s more than a century’s worth of economic ascent — with lots of tiny fingers mashed in looms and boyhood lungs blackened by coal dust.

Myanmar’s president, an ex-general turned reformist named Thein Sein, does not want to wait 100 years. Last year, he announced a wildly optimistic national goal: tripling Myanmar’s economy by 2016. A more likely scenario, posited by the American consulting giant McKinsey, is a quadrupling of Myanmar’s economy by 2030.

In foreign investment circles, much is made of what McKinsey’s reports call “positive demographics” in Myanmar. Translation: Myanmar is replete with young, able bodies. Roughly 3-in-4 of its citizens are classified as “working age”: 15 to 64. But the reality is that Myanmar’s “working age” dips as young as seven. Legally speaking, work can begin at 13, with few exceptions. Forcing kids to beg is illegal, hiring mentally ill kids is illegal, oil field and factory hands under 15 are meant to work only four hours per day.

“The Myanmar-esque question of what is child labor, what is child work, is an evolving picture,” said Aaron Greenberg, chief of UNICEF’s child protection section in Myanmar. “If you look around Myanmar, you’ll see children in the fishing industry, children working on farms, children in tea shops. I don’t think that will change dramatically over the next couple of years. What will change is the entry of large corporations.”

The United States and the United Kingdom were allowed to grow their economies on the backs of children without foreign interference. Myanmar will not have that luxury.

The nation has already felt the wrath of Western shame-and-boycott campaigns. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Pepsi, Levi-Strauss, British American Tobacco and others fled the country in an exodus stoked by activists targeting every firm operating in military-run Myanmar. But a reverse exodus appears nigh: General Electric, Ford, British American Tobacco, Visa, MasterCard and other multinationals have already come back. This is widely assumed to be the trickle that presages a coming flood.

The most visible of all returnees are Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Both are blanketing Yangon with ads in hopes of winning over the taste buds of a nation not yet hooked on soft drinks. The cola war has even spilled into Myanmar’s premier socialization spot, tea shops, and onto uniforms worn by the prepubescent boys who dash about serving super-potent milk teas.

“Pepsi? I never had it,” said Zaw Lin Htet, who is around 13 or 14. (He does not know his birthday.) But he and the other dozen-plus, baby-faced dropouts employed by the Morning Star tea house in downtown Yangon now wear work shirts adorned with Pepsi’s logo. So do an increasing number of tea shop boys around Yangon. (Pepsi did not respond to requests for comment.)

For $25-$30 a month, Zaw Lin Htet and the crew work from dawn until 9 p.m. They live apart from their families in a single cement room by the shop’s outhouse. “School was useless for me. I’d rather work here,” he said. He and his workmates consider themselves fortunate: their alternatives include grinding factory jobs or sloshing around in rice paddies. “But I miss my parents,” Zaw Lin Htet said.

The United Nations is pressuring Myanmar to sign a convention setting the minimum work age at 14 and the minimum age for “hazardous work” at 18. Hazardous work, however, is defined loosely as “any work which is likely to jeopardize children’s physical, mental or moral health.”

“It’s broad and it can be interpreted in different ways,” Greenberg said. But the convention is typically interpreted as a prohibition against full-time jobs that prevent kids from attending school, he said.

Still, Greenberg believes that “there doesn’t have to be a long journey between now and the day where we see a different face of children in Myanmar ... and that face won’t be defined by a child working in a tea shop. It’ll be defined by a child, in school, who will one day own his or her own tea shop.”

“But this is not an easy thing to do,” he said. “It’s going to be tricky here.”

What Myanmar’s leaders are attempting is nothing short of a warp-speed jump from backwater to booming frontier economy. From an “outpost of tyranny,” as former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Myanmar in 2005, to a nation in synch with the globalized 21st century.

But child labor is a tangible threaten that ascent. “When companies see the risk of scandal, the risk of naming and shaming ... you’ll see many deciding to wait and see,” Greenberg said. Moreover, ridding Myanmar’s factories, piers and tea shops of child workers could prove stubbornly impossible until other gutted institutions are made whole.

“If I had it my way, they’d all be in school,” said Maung Win, silver-haired and 52, who works the docks alongside Little King. Like most here, he lifted his first crate at 11. His back is now bent, his tattooed forearms are hard as granite.

“You could pull him out of here and put him in a school,” he said. “But he’d only come home to an empty plate and his mother would go hungry.”

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