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Minimum Wage Hasn’t Helped Myanmar Garment Workers Much

Myanmar may be making its way back into the apparel sourcing business—more international brands are investing there and the country recently set a minimum wage for workers to help fuel growth—but workers are feeling little effect from the country’s resurgence in sourcing.

The minimum wage (3,600 kyat per day, or $2.76, which works out to roughly $83 a month) is hardly a living one and many workers are at their posts for up to 11 hours a day, six days a week, with more than 10.5 hours in overtime, and still can’t buy basics like food, according to a new briefing paper by poverty battling non-profit Oxfam, “Made in Myanmar: Entrenched poverty or decent jobs for garment workers?

And despite the now in place minimum wage, Oxfam said workers are already seeing unexplained cuts to their take-home pay.

Most workers reported bringing in $1.50 a day on average before the minimum wage took effect, and though now some can earn an average of $3.70 a day including paid overtime and bonuses, 74 percent said the sum still isn’t enough to pay for food, housing, transport and medical costs. For most workers, more than half of their base salary is spent on accommodation alone.

Nearly 90 percent of workers said they can’t save any of their income and 43 percent are buried in debt.

“Following decades of economic isolation, political reforms have seen global retail heavyweights like GAP, H&M, Primark and Adidas starting to source from Myanmar factories,” the report noted. “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.”

Workers are a fundamental part of powering Myanmar’s economic growth, according to Oxfam, but most of the 300,000 that are working in the country’s 300 garment factories, aren’t benefiting from that growth.

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In surveying garment workers from 22 factories in industrial zones around Yangon, the country’s commercial capital, Oxfam uncovered “overwhelmingly poor working conditions” to go with the too-little money workers are earning.

Many workers don’t feel safe on the job—39 percent said they had sustained injuries while at work and some said they are afraid of accidents in the factory, namely those involving machinery.

Nearly one in four workers reported doing forced, and at times unpaid, overtime. Several told Oxfam high production targets demand they work through lunch breaks and into the night to meet goals.

“Adding to this pressure,” the report noted, “us anecdotal reporting by workers that when they do manage to hit the unrealistic production targets they are immediately hiked up, placing the production goal forever out of reach.”

Though legally entitled to paid sick leave, as much as 76 percent of workers had their pay docked when they fell ill.

“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,” the report noted.

Taking the “low road” as Oxfam called it, could lead to ongoing industrial accidents, more social unrest and continued human rights violations.

“Myanmar has the opportunity to break away from the path of inequality which so many other low income countries have gone down,” Oxfam executive director Winnie Byanyima noted in the report’s foreword. “Global brands and local employers in Myanmar must seize this moment of political and economic change—and place dignity and decency at the heart of work.”