"Made in Myanmar" is becoming increasingly popular on the labels of pants, shirts and jackets. The Myanmar garment industry is booming and is increasingly producing apparel products for the European market. FEMNET had a chance to chat with two Myanmar activists Myo Myo Aye (49), the programme director of Solidarity for Trade Union Myanmar (STUM), and Thurein Aung (42), the director of Action Labour Rights (ALR) about the labour rights violations in the export-oriented garment industry of Myanmar. The activists from Myanmar visited the Netherlands and Germany at the invitation of the SOMO (Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations).
Since the trade sanctions on Myanmar were lifted in 2012, thanks to small steps towards democracy, the export-oriented garment industry has been expanding at a rapid rate and is increasingly producing apparel products for the European market. In the light of these developments how would you say are the working conditions?
Aung: “Today there are about 700 garment producing factories in Myanmar and about 70% of the factories are owned by foreign managers, especially from Asian countries like China, Singapore and Japan. Western buyers are asking their Chinese producers to open a factory in Myanmar, due to a huge pool of cheap labour and favourable import and export tariffs.”
Aye: “There are more labour rights violations in foreign factories than in the factories with local management, driven mostly because of the language barriers between the management and the workers.”
Aung: “So that means the workers need translators to communicate with the management, but there are problems with the quality of the translations and the availability. And that creates a lot of misunderstandings. The Asian managed garment factories, owners and the managers, do not respect our local laws and they do not follow the human rights standards, their main purpose is to make profit. In cases of labour disputes in the factories, they do not take responsibility or accountability.”
Aye: “However, in both foreign and local factories there are problems with paying out the legal minimum wage, forced and unpaid overtime, child labour and anti-union practises.”
A new daily minimum wage will be raised from 2,20 EUR to 2,88 EUR per day, is it enough to live by?
Aung: “No, the cost of living in Myanmar is high, and the minimum wage can cover only food and accommodation, not the costs of health and education, for example.”
Ayo: “In the other sectors, workers are earning better, 7-8 EUR a day. In garment factory there are found ways not to pay the minimum wage, for example, through abusing the apprenticeship and probation provisions of the minimum wage law. And often workers have to work overtime hours in order to earn the minimum wage or keep their jobs. So, there is huge pressure on the workers to complete production targets and not to miss a single day of work.”
In the study by SOMO "The Myanmar Dilemma" was brought out evidence of child labour. The Myanmar law (Factories Act) sets the minimum age for employment at 14 years. Children aged 14 and 15 years old are now permitted to work for a maximum of four hours a day. Myanmar law with regard to child labour is not aligned with the international laws. How would you describe the situation?
Aung: “Myanmar is still a poor country, and there will be child labour because of it. Yes, the legal age limit is lower in Myanmar, and there are still ways to employ children, for example, as daily labourers, with no social security. Myanmar children are also under the risk of trafficking.”
What could be the solution?
Aung: “They still could be employed but with allowance, assistance, no overtime and with support for going to school.”
What are the labour issues workers most often report to your organisations?
Aye: “In my organisation STUM, one of the issues that workers report most about is dismissal, when the workers try to unionise or when the workers have demanded for their labour rights. We receive complaints also about overtime and leave.”
Aung: “In ALR, we often have complaints about social security benefits. The workers have to pay social security fee every month to the employer, but they are not benefiting from the social welfare scheme in practice.” Other complaints refer to dismissal of workers because of unionization and complaints to management.
Labour activism came out from the shadows once the Labour Organization Law came into effect in April 2012, would you say that the employer retaliation is still a reality in Myanmar?
Aung: “Yes, the anti-union practices are still a harsh reality in Myanmar, those who unionise or try to unionise can face the threat of dismissal from work, some have even been placed on an industry-wide blacklist to prevent future employment. Only about 10% of the factories in garment sector have established worker unions and that was made possible mostly thanks to the pressure from buyers.
About 90% of the 700 000 workers in the garment industry are women. What are the specific issues that women workers face?
Aye: “Women face mostly issues regarding maternity leave and taking breaks. And also, there is evidence of rape, beatings and other forms of sexual harassment.”
Are there any specific complaint mechanisms against GVB (gender-based violance)?
Aye: “There are no complaint committees in the factory level. That means you need to go to police and then to the court, but it is rarely done because they cannot afford to take a leave or hire a lawyer”.
What is the balance between female and male workers in RMG Industry in the leading positions? What is the situation of women being in leading roles in the workers unions?
Aye: “The unions that exist have overwhelmingly male leadership. Women are not wanted in the decision-making position, it is a clear discrimination. Women have to stay back, and support their husbands. This is one of the reasons I left my old organisation and founded STUM, to ensure women leadership roles.”
What should Germany brands and government do?
Aye: “We do not know which brands are producing in which factories; in case we find out, then we don’t know whom to contact. Then we ask for help of international organisations, like Clean Clothes Campaign or Fair Wear Foundation. We need more transparency and direct contact between unions and brands.”
Aung: “German government could support the Myanmar Labour Ministry in training the labour inspectors. We have only very few labour inspectors and they are often not qualified and trained. Lack of facilities such as enough budget, staff and mobile for them is one of the challenges.