The ups and downs of Myanmar’s Ferris wheel workers
ONLY the bravest festival goers dare to ride the human-powered Ferris wheels at Yae Kyaw’s Thadingyut festival each year in October. Ferris wheel workers call out to the crowd, coaxing both thrill-seekers and the faint of heart alike to take a spin, as a troupe of boys, dressed in the same monochromatic uniforms, physically turn the Ferris wheel until it reaches its top speed.
Though the ride in itself is quite scary, what’s more frightening is the startling lack of safety regulations as these boys – protected only by their own wits – scamper up and down rusting metal frames, perching themselves above the whirling seats all seemingly without any fear.
The morning of October 18, following the last night of the full moon festival, the Ferris wheel troupe and construction workers dismantle the remaining pieces of the ride and get ready to clear out for the next carnival in Yuzana in Dagon Seikken township later this year.
Fifteen year old Than Zaw said he has been operating Ferris wheels at carnivals and festivals across the country for the past four years.
“At first, I was scared,” he says briefly, loading up the truck. “But now I am used to it.”
Than Zaw is just one of the many boys working for the travelling troupes, plucked from their respective villages in all of Myanmar’s states and regions.
As construction workers pass by carrying long metal poles, a former Ferris wheel worker turned troupe organiser, 22-year-old Ye Lin Mon, explains the employment process for these festivals.
“On our way down, the boys are trained before they work,” Ye Lin Mon, who originally comes from Ayeyarwady Region, said. “I am the organiser. I know which parts work and who has to do what job.”
The Myanmar Times asked him about the youngest age of his workers as the boys appear to be quite young.
He claimed the youngest of his workers were 16 years old though Than Zaw, who spoke just before him, responded saying he is only 15 years old.
According to the International Labour Organization, child labour is as any kind of labour that “deprives children (any person under 18) of their childhood” through work that requires them to leave school or puts them in physical danger.
“The operation of humanpowered Ferris wheels by children under 18 can pose a risk to their safety and well-being, depending on the specific work they do,” said Aaron Greenberg, chief of the child protection at UNICEF Myanmar.
“It is important that the hazardous forms of labour are clearly defined in Myanmar and awareness raising is conducted with the general public including those operating small and large businesses,” Greenberg added.
When asked if there are ever any accidents involved in this line of work, the organiser was curt. “No one is injured in this.”
His seriousness is telling. These men don’t have time to talk; they are hesitant to answer questions; they have to pack up and go to the next festival.
“This is how I make my living, how I earn my money. It is also kind of fun,” Ye Lin Mon says with a half smile.
Child labour is pervasive throughout Myanmar – the situation is unlikely to change without a serious crackdown and enforcement of child labour laws.
In an hour’s time, the Ferris wheel boys, the organiser, and their truck stacked with a disassembled wheel, much like the rest of the characters in Yae Kyaw’s festival, will be gone without a trace to the next destination.
A young Ferris wheel worker leans against the frame.
During Thadingyut and other holidays, troupes of young boys power the Ferris wheels by hand.