Manufacturers and sourcing companies are being urged to implement better practices in Myanmar garment factories

Manufacturers and sourcing companies are being urged to implement better practices in Myanmar garment factories

While the garment industry in Myanmar is booming thanks to an upsurge in investment by international brands, workers are facing tough conditions a new report suggests.

Research by charity Oxfam and labour rights groups in Myanmar, says that while political reforms in the country have seen global retail heavyweights like Gap, H&M, Primark and Adidas starting to source from Myanmar factories, this growth is failing garment workers, who work up to 11 hours a day, six days a week, on very low wages and often in dangerous conditions.

"Secure jobs on a living wage must become the norm, not the exception," says its new briefing paper, 'Made in Myanmar: Entrenched poverty or decent jobs for garment workers?'

It adds: "With the garment industry growing quickly, companies need to act now to ensure that workers making their products can access their fundamental rights and provide a decent living for themselves and their families."

Based on interviews with workers from 22 factories in industrial zones in and around Yangon, the report reveals that even though workers earn an average of $98 a month (with overtime), they are unable to cover the cost of basic needs like food, medicine and transport. Almost half of all workers surveyed (43%) are trapped in debt, reporting that they borrowed money to pay for basic items.

While some workers have been able to negotiate improvements with factory managers (such as access to clean drinking water and small pay increases), the survey found that factory managers often do not listen to workers when they raise problems.

And even though a new minimum wage of $83 a month was introduced in September, the findings from the report suggest this amount will not be enough for workers to look after themselves and their families.

Safety is another big concern. More than one in three workers reported that they had been injured at work. Many were afraid of factory fires, explaining that building exits were often blocked or even locked.

Workers also reported that they sometimes faced verbal abuse by factory supervisors, who often pressured them to work faster. Almost one in four workers reported doing forced overtime and several reported doing unpaid overtime. A number of respondents reported working through lunch breaks and into the night to meet high production targets.

"Given poor conditions inside Myanmar factories, the weak rule of law, poor regulation and lack of respect for basic workers' rights, sourcing garments from Myanmar must not be business as usual for international companies," Oxfam says.

It adds: "Taking the low road on sourcing garments in Myanmar could lead to industry accidents, social unrest and human rights violations.

Among its recommendations, the group is urging international sourcing companies to:

  • Publish locations of supplier factories to enable independent monitoring and verification of conditions for workers;
  • Support suppliers to ensure that workers receive regular training and information;
  • Ensure that price negotiations with supplier factories enable legal wages to be paid as well as enabling any negotiated wages that are higher than the minimum wage to be paid;
  • Ensure that delivery times do not require workers to do excessive overtime hours;
  • Develop longer-term relationships with suppliers so that suppliers can plan for a long-term workforce;
  • Ban or severely restrict the use of short-term contracts in supplier factories.

And it wants manufacturers and sourcing companies to:

  • Recognise the right of independent worker organisations and employers to engage freely in collective bargaining (including bargaining on wages at the factory level);
  • Provide regular training for workers on occupational health and safety and fire/electrical safety, allowing and supporting the formation of worker health and safety committees that include both men and women representatives;
  • Develop mechanisms for workers to anonymously report safety hazards to factory management and for management to report back through the safety committee or union on which issues have been raised and how they have been resolved;
  • Ensure accessible, effective and efficient mechanisms for addressing workers' grievances.

"Myanmar is at a turning point in its recent history," the report notes. "Decision makers and business leaders have two clear choices: they can either allow the country to join the race to the bottom by becoming the next low-cost, exploitative and unstable manufacturing market; or they can learn from tragedies like the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh and from industrial unrest as a result of poor working conditions in Cambodia and Indonesia, and implement better sourcing practices."