By Ei Cherry Aung
YANGON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Khin Htar Kyu was in her late teens when she left her village in Wakema Township in Myanmar's southern Ayeyarwady Region with a younger sister to find work in Yangon to help pay the debts of her farming family.
On arrival she took the first job she was offered and began work as a live-in housemaid with a family in Sanchaung Township.
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Four years have passed and the 23-year-old has rarely had a day off. She usually works from 4 am to 10 pm to cook, clean and take care of young children, earning US$85 per month and free meals and lodging.
"Sometimes, I want to take one day off during the week but I can't," Khin Htar Kyu said.
"I was happier as a farmer, I had a lot of quiet and freedom. I need not care about anything except my crops."
Across Myanmar, there are tens of thousands of girls like Khin Htar Kyu who leave their families to become a domestic worker and send money home.
The urban migration is a longstanding practice in Myanmar but the process of relatives or neighbors connecting girls with wealthier families is being replaced by recruitment agencies and unregistered brokers, prompting calls for more to be done to ensure they are treated well and know their rights.
Women and child rights activists say they usually receive little pay and lack labor rights protection, and the maids are often young - or underage - and vulnerable to various forms of abuse by their employer.
Naw Aye Aye Hlaing, program manager with Yangon-based non-governmental organization Women Can Do It, said workers usually don't complain as they are isolated in their employers' homes and lack support when they want to report abuses.
"Myanmar has no special support group to help housemaids as they are seen as unimportant workers," she said, adding that more must be done to ensure proper treatment of workers.
"Housemaids should be set reasonable tasks ... (and) employers should be responsible for creating a safe working environment," said Naw Aye Aye Hlaing.
VULNERABLE AND UNPROTECTED
Aung Myo Min, executive director at NGO Equality Myanmar, said many maids are children from poor families who cannot care for them. They are placed with wealthier households and provide free labor in return for a roof over their heads.
"Some of these children have a lower status than domestic workers - they just get a meal and shelter, not money, for their work," he said.
Maung Maung Soe, a lawyer in Yangon, told Myanmar Now, an independent website supported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, that maids are often poorly fed, lack proper sleeping quarters and are regularly beaten.
Yet, court cases against abusive employers are rare as maids lack legal avenues to complain.
"They have little legal protection as there are no (labor) laws to protect housemaids against employers. But if they are accused of stealing money from their employer they can easily be prosecuted," said Maung Maung Soe, who has provided legal aid to abused workers.
Files at Yangon Regional Police Headquarters obtained by Myanmar Now show authorities recorded only eight cases of criminal abuse of maids by employers in the whole country between 2011 to 2015, four cases of which were in Yangon.
In only one case an employer was sentenced. Kyi Hla Myint, a man from Yangon's Bahan Township, received three years in prison with hard labor in February 2014 for beating a 14-year-old girl, burning her hands with cooking oil, and locking her up in a room without food.
In 2013, a 14-year-old housemaid filed a complaint with police over beatings on her head, back, arms and chest by members of a family in North Dagon Township who employed her for four years. Three of them are now facing criminal prosecution.
LEGAL PROTECTION NEEDED
Rights activists said the cases are just the tip of the iceberg as many abuses go unreported because victims lack the knowledge to stand up to their employers or because issues are quietly settled by employers.
"Only if housemaids have major injuries on their bodies can they have enough proof for a police complaint. Otherwise, it is very difficult for them," said Maung Maung Soe.
Aung Myo Min, of Equality Myanmar, said the government should draw up legal protections for domestic workers and inform them of their rights.
"Housemaids need to know how and where they can file complaints against abuses by employers," he said.
Nyunt Win, deputy director-general at Factories and General Labour Laws Inspection Department, said the Ministry of Labor, Immigration and Manpower has held talks with civil society organizations over drafting a law to set a minimum age for domestic workers and provide basic labor rights, such as working hours and holidays.
He acknowledged the workers' situation was poorly regulated.
"There are many controversial issues regarding housemaids, including working hours and off-days," Nyunt Win said, before adding that maids "should not refuse to prepare meals or wash clothes at the time when their employers come home".
Myanmar Now contacted several lawmakers in the ruling National League for Democracy but none knew of the draft law.
The Yangon Kayin Baptist Women's Association has created an organization called Protection for Women in Household Services that tries to ensure girls are employed by families who treat them well.
Naw Phaw Wah, the director of the organization, said her staff have helped about 100 maids find safe jobs and carry out regular visits to check on their working situation.
"The employers are warned once if housemaids are found to be treated badly. If they neglect our suggestions the organization withdraws its housemaid," she said.
Khin Htar Kyu said she desperately wants to quit work as a maid, but she needs to send cash to her family and help them save up to $1,000 to regain control of their farm, which they pawned to a wealthy neighbor.
"I cannot foresee the day when our family can get back their land and I can go back to the village," she said.
(Editing by Paul Vrieze and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)