#20 work
Verena Hölzl

Predictable Missteps

Working in Myanmar’s garment industry is rarely any better than in neighboring countries. Exploitation is wide spread. But unions are fighting for change.

Broken plastic chairs, a flipped table, doors ripped off their hinges: This is what the aftermath of a labour dispute looks like in Myanmar. “The situation got out of control,” Chit Su Wai says with a shrug of her shoulders. The 23-year-old works in a textile factory that recently made headlines for their spectacular revolt against the Chinese factory operators.

In a union building in the industrial hub of Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, Chit Su Wai and her co-workers are preparing for a demonstration on International Women’s Day. Blue banners on wooden poles lean against the wall in one corner. Slender and slight, her hair pulled back tight with one carefully selected strand falling across her face, Chit Su Wai sits on a plastic chair and tells her story: About her ultimately unsuccessful demand for payment of back overtime wages, how the Chinese shift supervisors threw fabric at her, and how she regrets what happened.

Security footage from the day in question shows how the situation escalated, as dozens of workers surround a clearly panicked factory boss. The machines were damaged so severely that production came to a complete halt for almost four weeks. There is still no clear word on who will pay for the downtime.

“We shouldn’t have done it,” Chit Su Wai says. She is talking very quickly, her hands flying as she describes the events of February 9. Tensions between the Chinese management of the factory and the Burmese workers mounted after a worker was sacked. Factory operators Hangzhou Hundred-Tex had accused the fired worker of talking unauthorised leave. But Chit Su Wai believes he was dismissed for being too active in the union.

Foreign investors were looking for new opportunities

Following the violent dispute, European clothing giant H&M cancelled all their orders with the factory until further notice, and expressed “concern” in statements to the press.

Along with H&M, Aldi, Tchibo, Jack Wolfskin, Gap and Primark also produce their clothing in Myanmar’s textile factories. According to the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA), they account for 10% of all export income in the South Asian country. Exports have doubled in the past five years since Myanmar opened its doors to the world politically and economically.

For half a century, Myanmar was ruled by a ruthless military junta until the ruling generals began the process of democratization in 2012. Elections were held, censorship of the press was lifted, and unions legalized.

Foreign investors were looking for new opportunities, and the new player on the world market offered more than just attractively low wages. For the international fashion market, it also represented a fresh start, a way to to move past the negative image created by stories of exploitation of workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia.

“The Chinese factories create the most problems.”

But as the revolt at Hangzhou Hundred-Tex clearly demonstrated: While Myanmar’s textile industry has expressed commitment to social responsibility and there are control mechanisms in place, all is not as rosy as it might seem.

In a February 2017 study, Dutch NGO SOMO, a centre for research on international organisations, found that most workers in Myanmar’s factories worked six days a week for ten hours a day for roughly 2.50 euros, hardly a living wage. The report notes they were often forced into debt, made to work unpaid overtime, and had no labour contracts.

“The Chinese factories create the most problems,” Win Thein Gyi Soe from the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM) says. The 33-year-old estimates that around one fourth of all factories in Myanmar are owned by Chinese investors. Chinese companies had little competition in Myanmar for years thanks to economic sanctions imposed on the dictatorship by the West. “When foreigners break the law in China, they go to jail. But the Chinese here can get away with anything they want,” she adds.

Win Thein Gyi Soe says CTUM should have been brought into the conflict at Hangzhou Hundred-Tex earlier. “If we had been there to moderate in time, it might never have come to such a violent clash.”

Diplomacy is a fairly new concept in Myanmar, and not just for unions and factory owners. “The Yangon labour minister threatened to send in the military during the conflict,” Win Thein Gyi Soe recalls.

David Beckham’s clothing line was made in factories that engaged in child labour.

government still seem a long way off. “Many employers simply ignore laws and guidelines,” Saw Moonlight says. “And they face no consequences for their actions.” The Burmese consultant has worked for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and monitored Myanmar’s textile industry for many years.

“There is a lot of chaos in this country,” he says with a laugh. He points to the poorly trained labour inspectors who are supposed to identify issues in the factories before they become full-blown problems.

So at the start of this year, journalists were the ones to break the story that ex-football star and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham’s clothing line was made in factories that engaged in child labour. “The children are not beaten in the factories,” Saw Moonlight qualifies. He adds that many use an older family member’s ID to pass inspections, “voluntarily, because they want to earn money.”

Social responsibility in clothing manufacturing has become a hot-button topic

Given the country’s history of years of oppression, it is proving difficult to bring labour laws up to international standards. “Many of the people who live here don’t see anything wrong with child labour,” Saw Moonlight explains.

Myanmar’s labour minister recently announced plans to raise the minimum wage from 3,600 (2.50 euros) to 5,600 kyat (3.80 euros) a day this coming autumn. While the measure was met with approval from many international brands, local manufacturers fear for the future of their businesses.

Myanmar is a promising low-wage country for international brands. Not only is production is cheap, but the country represent a clean slate after the reports of exploited factory workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia that shocked consumers in the shopping malls of the West. Social responsibility in clothing manufacturing has become a hot-button topic and labour rights abuses are increasingly playing a role when consumers decide whether to buy a 5-euro shirt from H&M.

Despite all the problems, his overall outlook is positive: “If you consider that unions have only been around for five years, we have already accomplished a lot.” Moonlight emphasizes that the textile industry is just one of many in Myanmar. Because clothing is produced for Western consumers, it has drawn the attention of NGOs and the media. “Workers in other types of factories aren’t as lucky,” he says.

Photo: “View from Golden Hill Towers (long exposure), Yangon Myanmar” by Soe Lin
2010 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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