I pulled up my scooter to a red light at the intersection as I began to whine to myself about the unforgiving afternoon heatwave of Mandalay. I glanced around to see how everyone else is coping with the heat when a young boy about the age of 7 in dirty clothes and scruffy hair approached me in his worn-out flipflops. As he gets closer, I noticed a bundle of white jasmine flowers strung up on a thread in his right hand and he politely asked if I would buy some.
One, that’s not familiar with the local customs, might ask if the kids are doing it for social media clout. Far from it.
Unfortunately, this is their livelihood. Most kids who do this kind of job come from a very poor family which requires everyone in the family to work, just to make enough money to buy food and supplies for a day.
I started feeling conflicted about how to respond. On one hand, I want to help this little guy out by buying the flowers off of him so that he could go back in the shade and rest. But on the other, I have been told multiple times that my empathy will encourage the parents or guardians who are behind apparent street hustles all across Myanmar in most cases.
Regardless, I still bought a dollar’s worth of flowers from the kid after feeling the moral obligation to help, especially if it’s going to cost me less than the price of a cup of coffee.
However, one realization started to kick in as I rode off in my scooter. These kids are running a genius hustle! Let me explain.
Sustainable business model?
These kids are making money off of thin air or rather a thin tree.
I traced back to where the flowers came from and most of them are picked at Buddhist monasteries in and around Mandalay. Jasmine trees are incredibly popular and cultivated across the country due to their characteristic fragrance and use in Buddhist offerings.
The jasmine flowers generally fall off their stem once they are ready to be harvested. So, the base of the tree is usually surrounded by a white patch of jasmine flowers. Which makes the job of jasmine pickers slightly easier as they would only have to worry about picking the ones high up on the tree.
Once they have collected enough jasmine flowers, they would find a shaded spot under a tree and begin to sort them out before arranging each one on a thread. Next comes the hard part, going out and selling the flowers.
In most cases, the parents use their kids as the front for their operation since there’s a higher chance of making the sale if poor kids in dirty clothes are the ones soliciting the passers-by to buy flowers. Naturally we don’t want young children to be out working, so we assume that if we buy the flowers and when they sell out, they will get to go back home.
However, that’s just the complete opposite of what happened. As they would just get more from their supervisors or parents in most cases and be back on the streets right away. It’s basically child labor and it’s borderline illegal.
In addition, selling flowers is just one of many hustles the kids are exposed to. Many of them also sell fruits, popsicles and in some cases, they will be sent out to beg or pick up plastic bottles while the parents sell the flowers.
However, there’s also a chance that behind the façade of poor kids in dirty clothes is a far more sinister operation run by human traffickers and gangsters. According to the stories, there are people taking advantage of the lack of effective laws preventing child labor in Myanmar. These people would go around the country recruiting orphans with the sole intention of putting them to badly paid (unpaid in some cases) hard labor.
One might wonder how all of this is allowed to happen right under the government’s supervision. However, there is little to no government supervision when it comes to enforcing child labor and child abuse as Myanmar has one of the least reliable social services in the world. At the same time, there is little attention given to the wellbeing of orphans, homeless and impoverished people.
Nonetheless, not all hopes are lost as there are a few non-profit organizations or government funded projects to help out the kids. However, all the social safety nets were thrown out the window when Covid-19 made its destructive wave across the country in 2020 coupled with a military coup that wrecked the social, economic, and political stability of the country within the span of a year.
Recent economic hardships dramatically put many impoverished families over the edge and on the streets. Therefore, enabling the act of begging and street hustles the only viable ways to make a few bucks to make ends meet.
A bigger picture
One of the biggest concerns of the culture of using young children in a street hustle is that they will be left behind when the time comes to look for a job as adults. Since such livelihood does not guarantee a steady stream of income for the family and there is less chance of scaling it up to a successful business overtime, especially if you do not have the knowledge of starting and managing a business due to their lack of proper education. As a result, the kids will not be able to escape poverty for generations to come.
At the same time, it is uncertain if the young children would be willing to go back to school once the economy recovers and the country’s political unrest becomes a distant memory.
The underlying cause of child labor is rooted in generational poverty and will take tremendous amount of resources to bring these kids back to school. The young children are not supposed to be the bread winner of the family as it will affect their future aspects of getting a job or starting a successful business, all of which require attaining a certain degree of education.
Being put to work at a young age will put them in a disadvantage compared to the rest of the population. Additionally, this will have a severe ripple effect for the country’s overall economic performance in the long run.
Therefore, it is indeed the government’s responsibility to come up with effective solutions to tackle poverty. We can look at how other developed nations deal with such social issues. For one, the government can provide subsidies to the poor families so that the children will be allowed to go back to school.
For instance, Philippine government has been tackling child labor by giving educational and family assistance to the poor families, so that those families that depend on the child’s income can meet their minimum basic needs. (*wcms_437075.pdf (ilo.org)
Learning to beg from a very young age will, in no doubt, destroy the spirit of independence and the individual’s self-esteem which will come back to haunt them for a lifetime. Therefore, we as civilians can offer help by volunteering in educating the youth of poor families and donating to NGOs.
Regardless, only time will tell if the culture of street hustle using vulnerable young children can be eradicated altogether.
You can make donations to the NGOs by following the links below or better yet you can donate to local orphanages in your area.
At a Glance – Child’s Dream (childsdream.org)
Delivering for children in a time of crisis | UNICEF Myanmar
As always, stay safe and stay curious!