Myanmars garment industry is growing exponentially

Myanmar's garment industry is growing exponentially

Myanmar's garment industry has a long way to go before it is sustainable, a new report has found, with workers still deprived of internationally recognised human and labour rights.

While still small compared to its larger rivals China and Bangladesh, Myanmar's garment industry is growing exponentially, with over 350 factories in its industrial zones, advocacy group Progressive Voice says in its report 'Raising the Bottom'. Yet, despite an increase in jobs, the industry is bearing the brunt of an extremely competitive global market, with labour standards still remaining low, authors claim. 

"Domestic legislation is not adequate enough to protect workers' rights, including the right to organise, while the new labour laws are not in line with International Labour Organization (ILO)'s labour standards," the report explains. "In particular, the lack of mechanisms and legal provisions that ensure good faith bargaining do not bind factory owners to follow the decisions of the arbitration bodies and the Arbitration Council during disputes."

While some factories follow the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA)'s Code of Conduct or individual brand codes of conduct, authors say such policies and standards, unilaterally implemented by private sector enterprises, are voluntary. 

"While there are some buyers in Myanmar that are part of global framework agreements (GFAs), which are negotiated between multinational enterprises and trade unions and provide grievance mechanisms for labour rights abuses, there will always be unethical factories and unethical buyers, keen to exploit a legal framework that is not strong and comprehensive enough to protect workers."

The report, based on 199 interviews with garment workers across 62 factories, 87% of whom were women, as well as industry stakeholders, focused on four areas: working hours, working conditions, the impact of the minimum wage, and trade unions and labour dispute settlements. 

With regard to working hours, it found 95% of employees regularly work six days per week, with around 88% regularly working ten or more hours per day. 

It also found that despite the introduction of the minimum wage over a year ago, more than half of the workers interviewed reported negative impacts of this policy, including stricter working conditions, more pressure to complete orders, and the loss of other benefits and incentives.

Working conditions fared little better, according to the report, with 54% of workers highlighting problems with their managers and supervisors, ranging from applying undue verbal pressure, to arbitrary lay-offs. Some pointed to threats or physical assault, but the most common complaint was of the pressure to fulfil orders, including being forced to work overtime, reduced break times, threat of dismissal and continual verbal pressure.

Other complaints included inadequate toilet facilities and access to medication, and problems with wage slips due to language barriers with foreign factory owners.

With regard to trade unions, only 33% of workers said a trade union existed in their factory, with a third not aware of whether one existed or not. Of those that were aware, 22% said they felt it was unsafe to become a member. Around 13% of the workers who said there was a union reported that it was employer-controlled or had been established by the employer.

"The pressures of the global market are such that Myanmar risks joining a 'race to the bottom'," report authors explain. "For factory owners, the pressure to exist and make a profit mean they need to extract as much labour from their workers as possible. These pressures are then projected by factory owners and management onto their workers. If this means forcing workers to do overtime, or threatening them with dismissal if they take a day off, then this is something many factory owners and managers will do. 

"The Myanmar Government has a responsibility to make policy and legislative changes that protect the rights of workers to form or join trade unions, to ensure good-faith bargaining in industrial disputes, to promote and entrench regulations and standards that ensure decent working conditions and the rights of workers such as maternity leave and healthcare access, and to punish abusive factory owners who flout the law."

In the absence of such policy and legislative protections, the report suggests actions by workers' rights groups should be "protected and supported". It also suggests the private sector has a duty to follow international guidelines such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Office for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (MNEs). 

"Being a country that is still a relative newcomer to the global garments market, and especially given the democratic transition that is underway, Myanmar should strive to become a model for sustainable development in the garment industry, where workers' rights are protected."

Click here to access the full report.