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Myat Thiri Nwe left her poor village in Irrawaddy Division three years ago to find work in Burma’s commercial capital Rangoon and soon after arriving found a job in one of the many garment and shoe factories on the city’s outskirts.
The 24-year-old now works at a Chinese-owned shoe factory, where she toils six days per week from 8am to 5:30pm, a daily shift that includes several hours of overtime to meet production targets and raise her income.
Through this gruelling schedule, she earns about 160,000 kyat (US$136) per month, a third of which she sends to her family back in the village.
Workers and labour unions complain working conditions at the factory are poor and even dangerous. There is no canteen and only a few outdoor toilets, and Myat Thiri Nwe’s tasks include looking after a machine that stamps rubber soles onto shoes — if it jams she has to manually remove the shoe.
Another worker, she said, lost a finger in an accident with the machine a year ago.
“Sometimes, I ask myself whether I am really benefiting from my work. But I cannot stop as I need to support my family,” she said. “And I cannot take much leave — when my father was seriously ill I could only go home for four days.”
Like most workers and union members in Burma’s quickly growing garment sector, Myat Thiri Nwe voted for Aung San Suu Kyi in last November’s elections, hoping that her National League for Democracy (NLD) would be able to raise incomes and improve working conditions for the urban poor.
In what is perhaps one of its most important challenges for the government, the NLD must balance the demands of labour unions, factory owners and foreign investors, keep Burma’s garment industry growing and distribute the benefits among an expectant, poor labour force.
So far, after about five months in office, the NLD’s efforts in this area have made little impression on Rangoon’s workers and unions.
Myat Thiri Nwe said: “I do not understand politics, but I think we are losing our labour rights even though we are working hard. Garment workers have not enjoyed improved working conditions.”
“Myanmar [Burmese] labourers have not seen noticeable developments that benefit them. We have not secured any more labour rights,” said Ye Naing Win, policy director of the Cooperating Committee for Trade Unions, which provides educational workshops on workers’ rights. “And the country will not develop well if it cannot ensure labour rights.”
In recent years there have been some improvements in Burma’s labour rights situation. The previous government set the first minimum wage at 3,600 kyat ($2.80) for an eight-hour workday last year after pressure from international garment brands and years of negotiations.
But Burma only legalised unions in 2011 and industrial relations — and laws and mechanisms to govern them — remain undeveloped.
Since the start of democratic reforms, the garment sector has expanded rapidly and, according international brand representatives and the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, the sector’s value could grow from around $912 million in 2012 to $8 billion in 2022, by which time it could employ 1.5 million workers.
Currently, local, Chinese and South Korean-owned factories around Rangoon employ around 300,000 workers, mostly young women.
A December 2015 survey by UK-based aid group Oxfam among workers in Rangoon found, however, that the new minimum wage “will not be enough for workers to look after themselves and their families.” It noted that 43 percent of workers interviewed at 22 factories were “trapped in debt.”
The report said a quarter of the workers were forced to work overtime. Oxfam said, “Often, factory managers do not listen to workers when they raise problems,” adding that, “Safety was a big concern. More than one in three workers reported that they had been injured at work.”
Win Theingi Soe, a representative of workers at Yes One Garment Factory and a central committee member of the All-Myanmar Labour Federation, said it was unclear how many factories have started paying the minimum wage and other benefits required by law.
“Some workers seek our help to set up labour unions at their factories, because workers who are not members of a union do not get a minimum wage,” she said, adding that employers often lay off workers who get involved with labour unions.
Phoe Phyu, a labour rights lawyer, said labour dispute arbitration is still in its infancy in Burma and its outcomes are inconsistent.
“Many labour laws don’t specifically define labour rights, the new government should improve this,” he said, adding that current laws only fine employers for labour rights violations and this should be changed to include revoking of business licenses.
Thein Tun, an NLD Lower House member and secretary of Farmers and Workers Affairs Committee, agreed that amendments were required to improve labour conditions.
“The amendment of existing labour laws play a key role in promoting labour rights and decent wages. We are trying to do so,” he told Myanmar Now. “[But] we will try to amend the labour laws of the previous government only if we found weakness or flaws.”
He said his committee had identified six laws — some of which are decades old, such as the Employment Statistics Acts of 1948 and the Employment Restriction Act of 1959 — that should be revised.
But a first priority, he said, was progress in Burma’s peace process, adding that its success would stimulate economic growth, investment and so improve the job market and working conditions.
Many labour disputes in Burma concern wages. Last year, almost half of the total 1,019 registered disputes dealt with this issue, according to government figures. Among these disputes, 353 were settled among the parties and 165 cases went to court.
Aye Tun, vice-chairman of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, said the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population often favoured workers when arbitrating labour disputes.
“In most disputes, the Labour Department orders us to fulfil the demand of labourers to increase wages, without taking accounting into the difficulties of employers,” he said.
Employers pay 5 percent of workers’ salaries to government-run welfare programmes, amounting to around $30 million per year, he said. But government inefficiency made it hard for workers who suffer illness and injury to access these benefits.
Nyunt Win, a director-general at the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population, said both employers and workers needed to understand each other better.
Since the NLD took office, his department had provided training on labour rights to factory managers, supervisors and workers at 3,342 factories, he said.
Phyo Wai Aung, 26, a leader of a labour union formed at Great Wall 1 Shoe Factory in Rangooon, said he had led demands for better working conditions and wages, but was fired from his job in May 2015 for his activities.
His case ended up in court — though he won, the punishment meant little to the factory.
“The factory was fined one million kyat [about $830] as it failed to reappoint me, in accordance with the court verdict. This amount of cash fine is very small for the factory owner. I will continue my case in the upper courts,” he said.
Moe Moe Myint Khaing, manager of the Human Resources Department at Great Wall 1, said the factory was open to workers’ suggestions, but said there had been no formal complaints and declined to comment on Phyo Wai Aung’s case.
This article was originally published by Myanmar Now on 16 September 2016.