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Myanmar Snapshot: Labor Conditions in the Garment Sector

Win Theingi Soe, sewing machine operator at Yes One Garment factory in Yangon, Myanmar has worked in the garment industry for nine years. She is union leader at the factory and also vice president of the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM).

Soe, who lives with and supports her mother and younger sister, says that although tough conditions prevail, change is palpable in the industry.

Describing herself as a ‘do-or-die person’ she outlines the situation on the ground in Yangon.

Sourcing Journal: Are there often strikes and protests in your factory?
Win Theingi Soe: After trade unions were established there has been more negotiation. In 2015, the first time the minimum wage announcement was made they didn’t have a good payment structure in my factory. So, there was a strike at that time. But after that there has been more discussion and no strikes.

In 2017, there was a serious strike action in Yangon when workers damaged the Hangzhou Hundred Tex garment factory. This was the worst industry action that happened, but we try to prevent this kind of action, and are trying to use more forms of discussion with factory owners and global brands to prevent these situations. A lot of the training that I received as a union worker has given me the self confidence to make this happen.

SJ: What other changes do you really see at the factory level in Myanmar?
W.T.S.: The garment industry is very labor intensive, with a very young worker population, and a lot of migrants coming to work from around Myanmar. They are really afraid of losing their jobs and so are willing to work in bad conditions.

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A lot has changed in many factories. Earlier, there was no leave or holiday, there was no medical leave at all, wages were cut if a worker was unwell. Factories set very high targets, and there was no toilet break time and a very short lunch break. The situation was very bad. There was verbal, and sometimes physical abuse of workers. But things have been improving slowly.

SJ: How strictly are labor laws enforced?
W.T.S.: The Myanmar government has limited manpower and resources and that’s why labor law enforcement is very weak and often we can see that there is no rule of law. If we want to intervene or engage for our workers we need to have good representation.

SJ: Are there global brands and retailers who ensure better conditions?
W.T.S.: Yes, their participation makes a lot of difference. H&M has been one of the best brands for the worker situation. Others, on the other hand, have a slow response time, and sometimes take more than a year for dispute settlements. One reason is that they don’t have good influence on supplier companies. When supplier companies violate worker situations they don’t intervene.