Raising the Bottom of Labor Standards

December 7th, 2016  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  7 minute read
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On 1 December, 2016 at a press conference in Yangon, Progressive Voice released a report on the garment industry in Myanmar,[1] pointing to the poor working conditions that over 240,000 workers face without adequate protection from national legislation. The report comes at a time when the garment industry is growing rapidly, and identifies essential reforms that must take place in order to better protect workers and improve their working conditions. Given the interest and increasing investment in the garment industry, it is thus a key indicator of Myanmar’s overall economic development and enacting necessary labor reforms will signal whether or not the NLD-Government will prioritize people or profit.

The report, ‘Raising the Bottom: A Report on the Garment Industry in Myanmar,’ highlights four main research findings related to working hours, working conditions, the impact of the minimum wage and trade unions. Working hours are typically long; six days per week and in many cases workers are pressured to work overtime. Secondly, with regards to their working conditions, the report finds that 54% of workers interviewed stated that they face undue pressure, intimidation and threats of dismissal from their supervisors. Sanitation was inadequate according to 40% of workers while in many cases healthcare clinics were not equipped with the appropriate staff or medical supplies. Other problems cited in the report include the manipulation of maternity leave resulting in many women not enjoying their right to paid leave despite it being stipulated by law, and instances of corruption regarding social welfare cards; leaving many workers without access to social security. In Myanmar’s garment industry, 90% of the workers are women, and speaking at the press conference, Ma Thwel Zin Toe, Coordinator of Networking and Alliance Building Program of Burmese Women’s Union outlined some of the problems that they face,

“Many women are not able to take maternity leave, even though it is prescribed by law. Furthermore, for many of these female workers, if they are forced to work overtime as is often the case, walking home late in the evening through dangerous areas means they are vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence.”

Ma Thwel Zin Toe, Coordinator of Networking and Alliance Building Program of Burmese Women’s Union

Despite the introduction of the Minimum Wage policy on 1 September, 2015, nearly two thirds of the workers reported negative impacts of this policy, in particular harsher working conditions, loss of bonuses and incentives, and the levelling out of pay-scales which resulted in a reduced pay for some long-term or skilled workers. Furthermore, with the rising costs of commodities and inflation increases, the new wage is still not commensurate with a living wage. The concerns over an inadequate minimum wage faced with rising living costs was one of the main motivations behind a recent protest of over 2,000 factory workers in Hlaingtharyar industrial zone. Finally, the report also finds that trade union membership is still very low, due to the fear of reprisal for membership of such a union if factory owners found out.

In addition, the legal framework in Myanmar is not strong enough to protect workers from exploitation and the intimidation of trade unions. Labor laws enacted in 2011 and 2012, while an improvement on the military regime era, still do not comply with internationally recognized labor standards. One particular example is the Settlement of Labor Disputes Law that establishes arbitration bodies to adjudicate industrial disputes. The law does not provide sufficient sanction to factory owners who renege on arbitration body decisions. As the report states, “If an employer reneges on an arbitration body or Arbitration Council decision, a fine (1,000,000MMK) is not enough to deter them from persecuting unionists.”

“If an employer reneges on an arbitration body or Arbitration Council decision, a fine (1,000,000MMK) is not enough to deter them from persecuting unionists.”  

Progressive Voice

Myanmar’s garment industry, however, does not exist in a vacuum, and it is subject to both international and domestic structural pressures. The integration into the global market of ‘fast fashion’ means that brands look to produce cheap and quickly made apparel from countries such as Myanmar. The worker ultimately feels this pressure as factory owners seek to squeeze every last drop of productivity from workers while cutting corners to reduce costs. Additionally, domestic pressures due to unsustainable rural development policies and the impacts of natural disasters creates an abundant labor force as livelihoods and land are lost. Many migrate from rural areas to Yangon and its industrial zones, placing factory owners at an advantage as it is easy to replace a worker who is deemed unproductive or for engaging in trade union activity due to this large pool of available labor desperate to find a job.

The report lists key recommendations to relevant stakeholders to improve the conditions for garment factory workers in Myanmar including amending key legislation to ensure good-faith bargaining in labor disputes and bringing labor policy and law in line with internationally recognized labor standards, in particular the conventions of the International Labour Organization.

As Myanmar integrates into the global economy, it is those at the bottom of the ladder who face the negative impacts of the forces of economic liberalization. Thus, Myanmar’s garment industry is at a key juncture, and there is an obligation on the Government to ensure that workers’ fundamental rights are protected and that working conditions are bettered. The voices of the communities that live and work through these conditions every day must be listened to and reflected in essential labor reforms. Rather than join a ‘race to the bottom,’ Myanmar must strive to contribute to ‘raising the bottom.’

[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

Resources from the past week


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Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”