Delayed or derailed? Life trajectories of child waiters in Mandalay

Dr Nyunt Nyunt Win

Urban expansion is associated with the emergence and transformation of marginal labour. In this context, migration of surplus labour from rural areas increasingly includes younger migrants, as generational agricultural vocations decline. This in turn challenges conceptions of child labour, where younger migrants are engaged in labour which is spatially remote from their families. In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, urbanization has drawn in large numbers of children from rural areas, many of whom who supply labour in non-formal contexts. One such practice is in the hospitality industry, where young children are sent to work in the many tea-shops in the city, supplying labour in exchange for lodgings and food, and nominal wages. In such liminal settings, their labour is provided away from parental control, but also outside of formal employment structures. However, such practice is not only tolerated, but viewed by many as a positive contribution to labour surpluses in rural areas, illustrating the fluid practical definitions of child labour. Little thought is given, however, to the longer-term futures of those engaging in such work, and whether the transition into liminal urban labour represents an enabler, or a constraint for future development. This paper seeks to inform public discourse on child labour by conducting narrative analysis to explore the politics of forbearance relating to child waiters/ waitresses, and to explore their life trajectories into adulthood.


Dr. Nyunt Nyunt Win has been teaching and researching in anthropology for nearly two decades. Her research focused on coping strategies of rural households, including changes in patterns of migration. More recent study has looked at how urbanization influences livelihood choices of youth, both urban and rural.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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