Garment workers in Myanmar are struggling to cover everyday living costs while factory owners enjoy the surge in demand from the global fashion brands expanding into Australia.
Ma Thae Thae Mar works at a textiles factory outside of Mandalay and earns the minimum wage of 3600 kyat ($3.40) for an eight-hour working day. The daily rate just covers the cost of food for herself and her child.
But there is little left to do basic things, such as fix the gaping hole in her roof.
“I manage, but it’s very tough during the rain as it wets the kitchen and I’m not able to cook,” she says, while balancing her child on her hip.
Her neighbour Ma Nilar agrees: “Living on this small wage is impossible to save money.”
She shares a bedroom in a dormitory with her mother and sister who also work in the garment industry. Despite working for 10 years she has not been able to afford a place on her own.
A report from the Burma’s Women Union, published in May, featured interviews with workers from nine factories that supply H&M, Marks and Spencer and C&A. They revealed a cycle of poverty and debt for workers. Most garment workers reported working up to 11 hours a day, six days a week.
Ma Than Dar, the director of garment workers union Thone Pan Hla, has been horrified by workers’ recent stories.
“Workers choosing not to drink too much water so they don’t have to use the bathroom as they will miss out on bonuses,” she recounts.
Another pressure is the limited number of “gate passes” that workers can use per month if they don’t want to do overtime on a certain day.
She says what worries workers most are “bad working conditions, health issues and communication with line advisers” and there is an overwhelming number of workers who don’t know their rights.
The human cost behind your clothes
As garment manufacturers move from Bangladesh and China to take advantage of cheaper labour in Myanmar, Tom Addy from Australian-funded organisation APHEDA Union Aid Abroad says more international attention is needed.
“Every Australian participates in the international garment industry supply chain as consumers. It is important that we think of the workers producing our garments in this supply chain,” he says.
Under the previous military regime, workers were not able to freely protest or organise unions. APHEDA is raising support for unions and providing direct assistance to workers organising themselves for the first time under the new democratic government.
Mr Addy says the biggest issue that workers are reporting is companies blatantly ignoring labour laws. This has resulted in a rise of workers protesting, which is starting to see results.
As H&M extended its footprint across Australia last year, workers in the outskirts of Yangon were protesting, calling for the back-payment of overtime wages which hadn’t been paid for 15 months. H&M has since suspended ties with the factory, Hangzhou Hundred-Tex Garment Company.
Local reform is just the start
When the minimum wage was introduced in 2015, labour unions were asking for 4000 kyat a day while businesses wanted 2500 kyat. Previously, workers were paid per piece or bonuses.
The move was welcomed in an otherwise unregulated industry, says labour activist Mar Mar Oo.
But BWU’s Naw Hel Lay Paw says it is not that simple and it is “not enough for workers to make a decent living”.
“On the surface it seems OK, but underneath workers who were more skilled with five or 10 years’ experience had their wages cut to the minimum standard. Some had all their benefits cut like ferry or transport allowance and no bonuses.”
Labour activists also say many business owners view the minimum wage – which is the second lowest in the region after Bangladesh – as a maximum price rather than a floor price.
SMART Myanmar have designed an app that educates workers about their rights and checks their salaries are in line with the law. It has been downloaded 2300 times in two months.
The next step is building confidence in workers so that they can report problems as many fear losing their job for raising their voice.
Global action needed
International women’s organisation The Circle is calling for fashion brands to acknowledge the right to a living wage as a fundamental human right.
Jessica Simor, QC, evaluated 14 garment industry hotspots and found brands were justifying paying the minimum wage rather than a living wage which she argues is “in breach of the UN guiding principles on business and human rights”.
ILO’s Rory Mungoven would like to see a global pact among brands taking responsibility to pay workers a fair wage in the factories they use.
“For higher wages, the pressure has to be put on fashion brands to not go from one country to the next for the lowest wages.”
Standardised certification in the fashion industry still trails other industries such as the food industry, where third-party governing bodies certify if a product is organic.
Moving beyond fast fashion
Pyone Thet Thet Kyaw of Virya Couture is one of the first fashion designers in Myanmar to pay her workers above the minimum wage.
After working casually in a factory in her holidays as a teenager, the designer became disillusioned with the fast fashion industry’s core business model – tight deadlines and producing high volumes of new clothes every week – which she believes is unsustainable.
She points to the recent Fashion Revolution movement – a call for consumers to mark the anniversary of the 1135 workers who died in Bangladesh when Rana Plaza collapsed – as a positive awareness raising event. But she says it is a “drop in the ocean” in terms of changing consumer culture to care about the human cost behind their clothes.
Sustainable fashion researcher Marianne Caroline says the biggest obstacle preventing consumers buying sustainably is a lack of information.
“How do we engage with the consumer so it is normalised behaviour to ask where did my clothes come from on a daily basis rather than one day a year feeling guilty?” she asks.
Caroline says the first step lies with the brands themselves, who should collect this supply chain information from the factories they use and release it publicly.