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Report: Labor Standards Still Low in Myanmar

Despite the rise in Myanmar’s relevance as a garment manufacturing locale, labor standards are still subpar there.

In a new report out by Progressive Voice (PV) Myanmar, “Raising the Bottom,” the workers’ rights advocacy organization said despite the increase in jobs to keep up with recent demand, labor standards remain low.

“Myanmar has a long way to go for this industry to be sustainable as factory workers, the majority of whom are women, bear the brunt of an extremely competitive global market in which labor standards remain below internationally recognized human rights and labor standards,” the report noted.

When looking at working hours, PV found that 95 percent of the 199 factory workers interviewed for the report regularly work six days a week, and 88 percent work 10 or more hours per day.

Workers are also unlikely to refuse overtime.

“This is for various reasons including not knowing whether or not they can say no, the need for any extra overtime pay to supplement a salary that fails to meet rising living costs, or sometimes as a result of coercion or intimidation,” according to the report.

Management discourages taking time off, such that 61 percent of workers said the “fine” for taking days off was 5,000 Burmese kyat ($3.81), and 36 percent said the fine was at least double that. The penalty is a disproportionate one, considering the daily minimum wage is an already too low 3,600 kyat ($2.74).

Myanmar implemented its minimum wage policy in September 2015 and since then, workers have said conditions are more harsh in terms of expected output, and regulations are strict. Many workers said they lost their bonuses and benefits as a result of the instituted minimum wage.

Awareness of trade unions is also low. Thirty-three percent of workers surveyed said a union exists at their factory, and just 8 percent reported being a member of one. Of those workers who are aware of the unions, 22 percent said they wouldn’t feel safe joining for fear of being let go.

On a more positive note, workers (87 percent of whom are women) said they feel safe in their workplaces when it comes to sexual harassment or gender-based mistreatment, largely because their coworkers and supervisors are overwhelmingly female.

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The findings don’t stray far from labor challenges in other sourcing countries, but for Myanmar, the report comes at a time when companies are still deciding whether to consider it as a viable sourcing option, and as the U.S. works to help improve the nation’s viability.

President Obama said in September, that the U.S. would lift remaining sanctions imposed on Myanmar to help facilitate trade. He also mentioned plans to restore the country’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) benefits as an added investment incentive.

But if Myanmar doesn’t get its labor standards right, growth in its garment sector could be slow going.

“The pressures of the global market are such that Myanmar risks joining a ‘race to the bottom,’” the report noted. “For factory owners, the pressure to exist and make a profit mean that they need to extract as much labor from their workers as possible. There is a pressing need to produce as cheaply and as quickly as possible.”

Fast fashion has forced factory owners to pass the pressure to get things done quick and cheap onto their workers.

“If this means forcing workers to do overtime, or threatening them with dismissal if they take a day off, then this is something many factory owners and managers will do,” according to PV.

Some factory owners will try to cut costs to keep prices low for buyers by not putting adequate resources in their onsite clinics or not cleaning or updating restroom facilities for workers.

What’s more, trade liberalization has made it even easier to move capital around and for buyers to chase cheap for their sourcing.

“It is on this point where opportunities should be pursued for transnational connections between labor groups and trade unions in the Asia region, working together for their mutual benefit,” PV said in its report. “By resisting this capital flight together they can collectively raise the bottom of labor standards, regionally and globally.”