DESPITE bright potential for Myanmar’s garment industry thanks to the US sanctions removal, many workers are still deprived of labour rights, according to a report entitled “Raising the bottom: a report on the garment industry in Myanmar”, which was launched on Thursday.
Aung Khaing Min, interim coordinator of Progressive Voice, a rights-based policy research and advocacy organisation, said that many garment factories in Myanmar did not respect labour rights.
“Myanmar needs a strong legislation to protect workers from abusive practices. We collectively need to raise the bottom of labour standards, rather than joining a race to the bottom,” he said.
He said it took them about 11 months to complete the whole process of the report. The report is based on interviews with 199 workers from 62 garment factories, most of which are located in Yangon’s industrial zones but some are based in Pathein, Bago and Indagaw. Additionally, they interviewed some owners, trade unionists and other stakeholders from late February to the end of April.
Aung Khaing Min said that working hours and working conditions could not create a favourable environment for the workers. Ninety-five per cent of the workers interviewed regularly work 6 days per week, while 88 per cent of them usually work 10 or more hours on a daily basis.
“Workers rarely refuse to work overtime for various reasons. Some do not know whether or not they can say no. Many workers need overtime pay because their salary cannot make ends meet. Some have to do overtime as a result of coercion or intimidation,” he said.
According to the report findings, 54 per cent of the workers have problems with their managers and supervisors. Sanitation is considered as a serious issue, as 40 per cent of the workers complained of toilets being inadequate, lack of water, not having enough toilets for the workforce, restrictions on how many times and for how long to use the facilities, and lack of cleanliness. Inadequate medication, lack of clinics, lack of healthcare and maternal leave led to an unhappy working environment for the workers. Additionally, language barriers with foreign factory owners resulted in problems over wage slips and resolution of disputes.
According to the statistics, Myanmar is home to over 350 garment factories which employ more than 240,000 workers, over 90 per cent of them are female. Thwel Zin Toe, coordinator of networking and alliance building programme of Burmese Women’s Union, said that there is a pressing need to ensure that women’s rights are better protected.
“Many women are not able to take maternity leave, even though it is prescribed by law. Furthermore, many of these female workers are forced to work overtime. Walking home late in the evening through dangerous areas means that they are vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence,” she said.
Aung Khaing Min said that the government needs to amend labour laws and policies to protect Myanmar workers. He considers structural pressures as “burdens for the workers”.
“The integration into the global economy means that factories struggle to remain competitive. Buyers need cheap fashion which means factories often cut corners at the expense of the workers. So it is important for investors and buyers to practise international labour standards,” he said.
“Given these structural pressures, it is imperative that the government amends legislation and implements a people-centred labour policy that is robust enough to protect the factory workers.”
One key finding of the report is that despite the introduction of the minimum wage over a year ago on 1 September, 2015, over 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.
Thurein Aung, director of Action Labour Rights, a research partner for the report, said that many working conditions have deteriorated since the minimum wage law was approved.
“Workers are forced to meet bigger production targets and feel more pressure as they are pushed harder and harder by their employers. Despite increases in their basic wage, their quality of life does not improve due to the rise in living costs and commodity prices,” he said.
The report points to big flaws in labour legislation that restricts the freedom to join and form trade unions. It finds that many workers are deterred by threat of dismissal for joining a union. Pyi Paing Ko Ko, director of Let’s Help Each Other, a non-government organisation that focuses on labour rights, said that factory owners sometimes ignore the decisions of the Arbitration Council when it comes to disputes.