Myanmar's youth wait for key fruit of reform: jobs

Although Myanmar has passed a wave of unprecedented reforms, many of the country's young people lack skills, training, and jobs. 

Sakchai Lalit/AP/File
Young workers use sewing machines at a garment factory in Yangon, Myanmar, April 2012. Many of Myanmar's young people lack the skills, training, and jobs that will help them see tangible benefits from the country's political and economic reforms.

Htein Lin Aung is studying hard for a degree in architecture, and the stakes are high: He has already failed his first-year exam twice, he says, and without a passing score this year, his chances of finding a good job won't improve.

His employer, a furniture-design company, pays him just 85,000 kyat, or $100, per month, for six days of part-time work. Htein Lin Aung says the job – which took him four months to find – barely covers lunch, transportation, and some other expenses.

"It's good that I live with my family, because I don't need to pay for breakfast, dinner or my rent," he says.

His predicament underscores a largely undocumented problem: Although Myanmar's nominally civilian government has passed a wave of unprecedented political and economic reforms since taking power in 2011, many of the country’s young people lack the skills, training, and jobs that will help them see tangible benefits from the reform process.

Observers say it remains unclear to what extent Myanmar’s young population will benefit from a wave of new foreign investment that is beginning to kickstart a range of domestic industries, from manufacturing to tourism, and whether restless youth will exacerbate crime and other social ills.

The new government has passed laws that criminalize forced labor and allow workers to form unions, and last year it announced a plan to overhaul the education system. A range of foreign donors, including the Swedish, Australian, and Japanese governments, are now funding projects to boost youth employment and provide skills training.

The government is “very concerned” about youth unemployment, says Steve Marshall, Myanmar liason officer for the International Labor Organization, the United Nations agency advising the government on labor reform.  However, “Putting in the necessary structures … will not be something that happens overnight.”

Youth unemployment is a global concern. The ILO estimates 40 percent of world's 160 million jobless are between the ages of 15 and 24, and that 85 percent of the 1 billion in that age bracket live in developing countries. Global unemployment levels among youth are on average two to three times higher than they are for adults, according to the agency, and young people are more likely to work low-paying, temporary jobs that don't offer security or employment benefits.

Estimates vary on the scope of unemployment in Myanmar, formerly called Burma. The US Central Intelligence Agency says it is 5.4 percent, for example, but a parliamentary committee recently put the figure at 37 percent. Mr. Marshall of the ILO says there are no accurate figures.

What is clear, experts say, is that Myanmar needs agencies and programs that will allow the unemployed to access jobs and skills training in the short term, and vocational training and labor institutions that will help build a workforce over the longer term. The median age of the country's 55 million people is just 27.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leading opposition parliamentarian and a 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has singled out youth unemployment as one of the biggest challenges the country faces in its transition from repressive military Junta toward representative democracy. 

“It is not so much joblessness as hopelessness that threatens our future," she told attendees of the International Labor Conference in Geneva last June. "Unemployed youth lose confidence in the society that has failed to give them the chance to realize their potential.” 

A major obstacle is lack of adequate educational facilities and resources. Marie Lall, a leader in education and South Asian studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, says although international donors are funding educational training programs, such programs typically are targeted at urban youth, putting rural youth at a comparative disadvantage.

Myanmar's ministry of education is now reviewing its education policies, with a large-scale reform planned for 2014, but Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party, the National League for Democracy, has formed its own committee to carry out a similar task – a move Ms. Lall says is counterproductive. 

As Myanmar’s politicians debate the best way forward, it’s an open question whether youth unemployment and other hardships will push some youth to deviant behavior. "Until now it was not worth your freedom to commit crimes [because] the punishments were draconian,” Ms. Lall says. "Now suddenly people can speak up, and there is going to be trouble."

Some young people are leaving Myanmar in search of a better life, even as their country grabs international headlines and tries to woo foreign investors with tax breaks, special economic zones, and a new foreign investment law.

Mung Gualnam, who runs a Yangon job-recruitment agency, says he helps about 60 Myanmar workers find jobs each month in Singapore and Malaysia. Some are low-skilled and earn about $400 per month in overseas factories, compared with about $100 or $200 at home for similar work. Those with university degrees can earn about $1,500 per month abroad, compared with domestic salaries of just $200 to $300 for the same work.

A few international companies in Yangon pay local managers up to $2,000 or $3,000 per month, but such cases are relatively rare, "so our educated people are rushing out."

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