Sunday, 10 November 2019

The life of a dock worker in Myanmar

Burma Photograph - Dock Worker by David Longstreath

Editor’s note: With special thanks to The Myanmar Times for bringing this story to life
YANGON, MYANMAR – The life of a dock worker in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) can be a precarious one, as the shipping schedule is not always known in advance. At the Yangon docks, there are no spreadsheets, timesheets or Google calendars.

When the ships are delayed or few are scheduled to dock, the workers have little to do but wait. Some search for odd jobs elsewhere in the city, until their ship comes in.

Khin Maung Cho looks after his 90-years-old grandmother, so his family also feels the stress of him missing day of work on the docks.
“In the past, ships from Mandalay also docked at the dock twice a month. They carried beans, corn, onions and chilli. When they went back to Mandalay, the ship would be filled with oil, salt, soap, sugar, and garments. There was plenty of work then,” said U Thein Tun, who has been unloading ships on Botahtaung docks for the past 26 years.

A child carries a basket of stones while unloading a quarry boat with adult workers at a port in Yangon, Myanmar, last year. In Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation also known as Burma, child labor is not a minor social blight. It is a pillar of the economy. 

In its heyday, Botahtaung docks employed 700 workers. Different ships carrying cement, rice bags and household commodities docked around the clock at the dock.
With the construction of better roads in the country over the past 5 years, demand for ships on the Ayerwaddy has dropped off. Myanmar has also seen an influx of modern consumer items from Thailand and China overland, leaving the dock workers with less work.
This is perhaps a sign of the creative destruction of capitalism, the creation of new lifestyles made possible by the destruction of old ways of making a living.
It’s a tough job unlike many of the new, more efficient modes of transport on the docks. In that sense, it’s also a very physically rewarding one too. “Altogether we lift around three or four thousand bags a day. Sometimes we have 2000 bags to carry. It’s hard work, and I always sleep well at night afterwards,” U Thein Tun added.

Today only about 30 workers still work at the Botahtaung dock. When they do not have work at the docks, some work digging out the sewers in the city. 
“Sometimes, we get K5000 or K6000 (about $US 4) for carrying rice bags per day,” said U Myo Myint who has been working at Botahtaung docks for 20 years.
From the original eight docks at the Botahtaung docks, only one is still used for commercial transportation. One was destroyed in 2008 by Cyclone Nargis, and the six others are used by the Yangon Water Bus and other ferry services.
“The rest of the bridges are in excellent condition with nice floors and roofs. But our bridge lacks a roof,” said U Mya Soe, a supervisor at the dockyard.
As a result, the work is difficult and the conditions dangerous, but the workers have a collegial system to help each other out. U Thein Tun carried many heavy loads when he was younger. As he nears his sixtieth birthday, his colleagues treat him leniently and only let him lift the smaller or lighter bags. 
Five years after starting at the docks, U Thein Tun, got stuck under a pile of rice bags and suffered a serious neck injury. He was sent to the hospital, where he was interned for five days and had to rest at home for two months. 
“When I get tired, I go to the clinic. When I feel muscle pain, I just take painkillers. I take multivitamin supplements every day to recharge,” he said. 
After a day’s hard work, many workers will go to a nearby beer station to forget about their day. For U Thein Tun who does not drink alcohol, watching a football match on television inside the resting room does the trick. 


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