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Myanmar Union Official: Factories Using Covid as Excuse to Cull Ranks

As Myanmar has struggled with factory closures and worker retrenchment due to Covid-19 closures from September through October, Phyo Sandar Soe, assistant general secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar (CTUM), spoke with Sourcing Journal about some of the hard issues faced by the 600,000 workers in the country’s garment industry.

As a garment professional, she has worked both in Myanmar and across the border in neighboring Thailand. Myanmar’s trade union movement became legal in 2012.

Currently, she said, union leaders and workers are torn between sympathy for factories that are losing business with the cancellations of orders from global buyers, worries about the spread of the coronavirus, and anger that manufacturers have also been using Covid-19 as an excuse to shut down, and open instead at a new locations, with fewer workers, blocking out trade unions.

Sourcing Journal: Global brands believe that Myanmar offers an advantage in terms of lower wages. Will wages increase in 2021? 

Phyo Sandar Soe: Wages in Myanmar are the lowest in the ASEAN region, even Laos is higher than us.

Minimum wages were to be increased in 2020, but because of Covid-19 we are balancing the situation; right now factories are shutting down and we need to have jobs.

In 2018, the minimum wage was increased to 4,800 kyat ($3.61 per day, $108.3 per month)–at that time the living cost was 5,600 kyat ($4.21) per day, which meant that it covered only 75 percent of our living costs.

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According to our survey, now 7,800 kyat ($5.87) per day would cover the basic needs of a worker, but we are judging and checking the situation because of the pandemic and are likely not to go for any increase, but are in discussions.

SJ.: How have manufacturers responded to the Covid-19 situation?

P.S.S.: Myanmar was locked down through October in the second wave. Now factories are open but Covid-19 cases are increasing day by day and the workers don’t have options. Our social security scheme is very weak and workers cannot afford not to have any earnings, even though infections are increasing.

Employers have also been using Covid-19 as an excuse to lay off trade union members or leaders, citing a lack of business. Then, three months after the layoffs they open another factory and hire new workers and prevent unions inside their factories.

That is one strategy.

The other one is that they tell the government they will shut down temporarily. If they shut down they don’t have to pay compensation. This keeps the workers waiting in the hope they will be re-hired when the factory opens, so they don’t talk about compensation. But the owners simply restart another factory so they can avoid the whole issue.

SJ: How has the Covid-19 situation affected migrant garment workers from Myanmar to Thailand?

P.S.S.: Before the Covid-19 crisis, more than 20,000 workers moved across the border to Thailand every day. In Thailand, wages are almost double of Myanmar. But with Covid-19 the borders were closed, and many migrant workers came back home as Thai factories were shut down. In this process, they lost their social security benefit in Thailand, and also any compensation that was given. We are discussing these issues for some better resolution.

SJ: In these last five to six years, garment factories have grown fast in Myanmar. Has the situation from labor been changing at the same speed?

P.S.S.: Yes, we have also had a lot of projects and training for the garment industry. ILO projects, Smart Myanmar–European Union (EU) projects. There have also been many different kinds of training programs–in terms of improving industrial relations, productivity, collective bargaining agreement, workplace coordination.

A lot of different institutions are putting in effort for the garment industry. Yet, there is scope to have many more projects.

SJ: Are there many trade unions in a single factory, like it is in Cambodia?

P.S.S.: According to the law we can establish three unions at least in Myanmar, but in practice we don’t do that, because it is not good for the union movement.

If we have a union inside the factory another union will not touch that area.

We have three bigger unions for the garment industry. But we do not have serious problems among the federations, rather all the unions come together, discuss and make a unified proposal to the government and to the workers. We don’t have written guidelines, but etiquette guidelines.

In Cambodia there are two or three unions within a factory.

SJ: Didn’t it take a lot of guts to join a trade union when it was banned, especially as a woman?

P.S.S.: When I joined the trade union, it was during the military regime. They came to my parents, and my relatives. They questioned why I joined this illegal organization. We had many challenges. I joined the movement at 23 years old; I was 29 when I came to the country.

I was young, I am a woman, in Myanmar in a male-dominated culture. In the movement, we have to provide education to the local communities, workers and farmers and many older people, especially men, don’t want to recognize a young woman activist. But I didn’t care about that. I knew I had to overcome the challenge, and just keep moving forward.

SJ: There are several strong women leaders now. Have women become braver in the past few years?

P.S.S.: Luckily, we can say in Myanmar that there are more active women trade union activists than men. Women in the movement are more active. I am also part of the national social security board, and a worker representative of the national tripartite body.

SJ: There is talk about the European Union withdrawing the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) status for Myanmar. Are you working to improve the labor situation so this doesn’t happen?

P.S.S.: Like in other countries we do face a lot of challenges in the labor sector…but the one change has been that we can negotiate with the government and employers. We may or may not agree, but at least we can discuss, voice out our issues and eventually we can achieve. And because we were in exile and we used ILO mechanisms for many years before, we have a very good understanding of issues and are ahead of the government and the employers in many ways.

As trade unions we are doing our best. European governments and our other social partners want to help fulfill labor standards. We want to recognize their assistance, but for GSP withdrawal, we ask, please wait. We understand they are working for us, but we say again, please wait, We are doing our best, and during the Covid-19 crisis we need jobs. We don’t have a good social security system or unemployment benefits, and the best way European and U.S. governments can help our workers is when they have jobs.