Waiters reveal a desperate nation

Yangon, October 3:

By day the tiny boys wait on the tables of Myanmar’s tea shops, a national instituti-on where people go to go-s-sip and pass time of day. By night tables and stool become their makeshift beds.

Myanmar’s army of child waiters, recruited from the dirt-poor villages, are a sy-mptom of the poverty that has resulted from four dec-ades of economic mismanagement by its rulers.

“It’s easy to find children in places where families desperately need money,” said one teashop owner in the suburbs of Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.

“The work children do mostly depends on their parents’ background. If the parents are garbage collectors, the children will become garbage collectors too, to help out their families,” she said.

The number of child labourers, some as young as 11, has increased in recent years as rising prices and inflation have heaped even more hardship on a people who have long struggled to survive.

Such is the knife-edge on which most people live that fuel price hikes announced in August, which doubled transport costs overnight, helped trigger the extraordinary demonstrations seen nationwide in the past two weeks.

The measures, which made it too expensive for many people to travel to work, brought tens of thousands out onto the streets, until Myanmar’s ruling generals enacted a violent crackdown.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has said it is gravely concerned that ‘economic exploitation is extremely widespread in Myanmar and that children may be working long hours at young ages’. In the tea shops, where citizens go to socialise and exchange information in this tightly co-ntrolled state, children are mostly recruited soon after leaving primary school.

Just like other youngsters, they play, sing and shout after their duties are done, but they must rise early in the morning to begin the next day’s labours.

Some work behind the counter preparing steaming pots of tea, while others bake snacks and clean the premises, or trot among the tables and call back orders to their young colleagues.

Teashop owners usually recruit child waiters directly from poor families or through agents who scout villages as far away as the ethnic areas on Myanmar’s borders.

“Some of us came down to Yangon with a group from my village. Some children were sent by their parents or relatives,” said a young waiter.