Talks are underway to set a minimum wage for garment workers in Myanmar

Talks are underway to set a minimum wage for garment workers in Myanmar

The secretary of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA) has told just-style it is unlikely that demands from striking clothing workers will be met.

“When we consider rising living costs in Yangon, then yes, the workers’ demands are reasonable,” says Khine Khine Nwe, also joint secretary general of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI).

“But when production costs are factored in, they aren’t. What’s needed is a compromise that offers something better for workers – but not at the expense of commercial viability,” she told just-style.

The industrial unrest that erupted in Myanmar’s garment sector at the start of February continues amid the arrest of two protest leaders on public disturbance charges. Workers are demanding their wages be increased from US$50 to US$80 per month for a standard 44-hour working week. The protests began when the union (national) and Yangon division (regional) governments offered a US$12 monthly increase.

At the height of the protests in late February, an estimated 4,000 workers in various Yangon regional townships took part in the strikes, which involved sit-ins and blockading factory entrances. The factories involved were The Red Stone, Costec, E-Land, Ford Glory, and Han Jen Textile, just-style was told.

On 23 February, a government minister said negotiations with workers would continue but warned that action would be taken against those “harming peace and the rule of law”. The announcement came several days after strike leaders Myo Min Min and Naing Htay Lwin disappeared: on 22 February it was confirmed they are being held in Yangon’s Insein Prison.

Meanwhile, Khine Khine Nwe is involved in continuing negotiations with trade unions, government officials and union representatives. She claimed the unrest is not deterring foreign investment in a sector that employs some 200,000 people.

“The foreign buyers are still coming in. A bigger deterrent is that Myanmar lacks full market access. US banks remain very cautious about processing transactions.”

“The dispute will be resolved eventually,” she added.

She also owns a factory in Shwepyithar industrial estate, where four South Korean and Japanese-owned factories were forced to temporarily halt operations due to the strikes.

Myanmar passed a Minimum Wage Law in 2013, and talks are currently underway to set a minimum wage for workers. The details for sector-specific salaries are yet to be finalised, and it is thought unlikely they will be agreed before April or May at the earliest.

“Everyone wants a minimum salary to be set – including factory owners. We don’t want to see the kind of backlash that took place in Cambodia following the crackdowns against union activity,” said Khine Khine Nwe.

Last month, the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA) published its first ever Code of Conduct, in a move that aims to set out responsible and ethical business practices for the country's burgeoning apparel industry. Elements include compliance with national laws and regulations; labour rights and working conditions; and wages and benefits, amongst others.

Myanmar's garment export revenues have more than doubled in less than three years to reach around US$1.5bn in 2014, with the MGMA registering at least one new garment factory opening each week, bringing the total to around 275.