“They think that we are like animals”: the garment industry in Myanmar

Garment workers at the workers rights training centre, Myanmar.
Garment workers at the workers rights training centre, Myanmar.

In Myanmar, the garment industry is growing rapidly, providing jobs for around 300,000 workers. In July 2015, research was conducted by Oxfam in Myanmar to understand workers’ perspectives. Workers who participated in the survey (90 percent of whom were women) expressed concern about low wages, long hours and safety issues. Even with overtime, most said they could not afford housing, food and medicine with the income they earned at the factories. 

Read Ei Yin Mon's story:

“I arrived in Yangon after Cyclone Nargis in 2008 because there were no jobs after the cyclone. I wanted to be a school teacher, but failed year 10 and had to start working to support my family. My sister and I support our youngest sister who is still in high school and send money home to my mother who has diabetes and heart problems.” 

Pan Ei Phyu, 21, pictured with her sister.Pan Ei Phyu, 21, pictured with her sister.  She works 12 hours a day to support her family who she visits once a year.  She says that many garment workers have aspirations but see no way out. She would like to be a translator and studies English through a project supported by Oxfam.

Overworked and underpaid

“I don’t want to keep working at the factory because the base wage is so low and we are pressured to do long hours of overtime. We are always being told to work faster. They think that we are like animals. I know I have no rights to make a complaint, so I have to bear it. I have been working here so many years and we try our best to meet the production targets so that we won’t be told off, but sometimes it [the yelling] is unbearable.” 

The average base salary was found to be $1.50 a day, and $40 a month (Myanmar kyat (MMK) 49,400).  An average worker spends 50 percent of their base wage on accommodation. Almost one-quarter of workers are the sole income earner in their family, with 95 percent reporting they support family members. Workers reported doing between 3 and 20 hours of overtime each week (10.5 hours on average). With this, and a complex system of bonuses, workers were able to boost their income to an average of $3.70 a day ($98 per month / MMK 122,000).

Almost half of all respondents said they did not feel safe inside the factory. When asked why, they gave a range of reasons, with fire risk being the most prevalent. Workers reported that exit doors are often blocked with boxes and most said they would not know what to do in the event of a fire; 80 percent had never had any fire safety training.  “We once had an accident and there was a fire in the factory. At that time, people were shouting at us to turn off the main switch. But we didn’t know how to turn it off. We hadn’t received any training or information about safety. 

Planning a new career

“For the future, the single most important thing for me is that I can reduce my working hours without a reduction in my salary. There needs to be more negotiation between worker representatives and management to address the issue of overtime and provide fair wages. For myself, I am thinking about taking a sewing class, which would take two months. After that, I would like to work in the factory during the day and run my own business providing sewing classes on the weekends.”

Women, work and wages in Asia

Asia’s economic success has been paid for by poor women, who work long hours for poverty pay and do the majority of unpaid care work.
Governments and businesses must help lift the burden from women’s shoulders by providing benefits such asmaternity pay and childcare support, and by investing in basic infrastructure like clean water supplies.

Read more

Download the report: Underpaid and undervalued. How inequality defines women's work in Asia