Women making branded clothes fail to make ends meet

Shobha Shukla, CNS (Citizen News Service)
Foreign investments in Myanmar's garment industry have increased six-fold from K2.2 billion (S$ 2.3 million) in 2007 to K12 billion in 2012. The increasing amount of investments by foreign companies, including famous garment brands are believed to be driven by low labour cost, a vast workforce and low production costs in the country. According to a report from the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, the total investment in Myanmar was valued at US $1.7 billion in 2015, representing an annual increase of 8.7%, which reached $2.2 billion in 2016.

Forgotten Voices behind the Reform

Between 2015-2017, the Burmese Women’s Union (BWU) conducted a Feminist Participatory Action Research (FPAR) on the living and working conditions of women working in the textile factories in Myanmar. Based upon the findings of this research, it brought out a documentary and research paper titled Forgotten Voices behind the Reform, bringing the unheard voices of women garment workers to the public eye.

Ei Mon Pyo, (or Thae as she is called) is a member of BWU and currently manager of Honest Information - an online website for women news. She was also a researcher for FPAR. In a recent exclusive interview with CNS (Citizen News Service) around the 3rd Asia Pacific Feminist Forum (APFF), she spoke about the myriad problems faced by female labour force employed in garment factories of Myanmar.

Injustices faced by women garment workers

Women account for 90% of the garment labour force in Myanmar. They face a unique set of challenges - poor wages, poor working conditions, lack of basic healthcare and safety both inside and outside of their workplace.

They have to clock a minimum of 10 hours a day, including 2 hours overtime, 6 days a week. It is already dark by the time they head back home. Women workers feel insecure on their way back as there is not enough light on the streets and the ferries are overcrowded. And yet the minimum wages still remain 3600 MMK, even though the cost of living has increased manifold. Also, very often, the owners cut their bonus, increase the work targets and reduce their overtime.

Toilet facilities at the work place are dismal. Workers are limited to two bathroom breaks per shift. If they stay longer than their allotted time for any reason, they are threatened with salary cuts. Moreover, as there are not enough toilets to cater to the thousands of garment workers, they have to wait in the queue for a long time. At the same time, they are under threat of finishing their daily target of work as set by their superior. So, very often most of the women workers refrain from answering nature’s call, so as not to waste their time standing in a queue and waiting for their turn, and work instead. This poses grave health risks to the women workers, especially those who are menstruating.

Dissent brings punishment

“Almost all women workers interviewed for the FPAR report lacked knowledge about their labour rights. Many of the women interviewed said that they lack the time and energy to seek information on their rights. They also have to do their household chores. So, they face the double burden of fighting for their domestic as well as workplace rights”, shared Thae.

Women garment workers who have dared to actively fight for their rights, have been threatened, discriminated in their workplace, not allowed to speak with other co-workers and even fired from their job. If they get arrested for taking part in demonstrations, they face discrimination in prisons too. But such women are few and far between. Most of them do not dare to speak out openly about their situation for fear of losing their jobs.

Sparks of success

“We could share with the women workers information about their rights, including women’s rights. We have been able to raise their voices and highlight their problems, which had not been done before. We have also empowered at least some women garment workers to actively participate in the workers’ rights movement. The FPAR report attracted a lot of media attention, thus highlighting the workers’ dismal situation both internationally and locally”, shared Thae.

There was another small victory for BWU. H&M brand responded by saying: This is totally unacceptable and we will follow up on this information immediately. All our suppliers are committed to follow our strict code of conduct and we conduct regular inspections of the factories. If a supplier does not live up to our demands we will take action….

BWU, along with workers-activists, also met officials of the Embassies of Japan, Sweden, Norway, and USA to discuss about workers issues, especially those of the women. How much of this has actually translated into action at the ground is not known. But the report has definitely empowered the workers to demand their rights.

Challenges ahead

Although the Burmese law allows formation of trade unions in the factories, in reality the employers discourage them from doing so. Those who do join the workers' union, are under constant oppression from the employers and even face the risk of losing their jobs or are discriminated at the workplace. Thae said that sometimes, there are two labour unions in one factory - one formed by the employer and the other formed by the workers. At the time of meeting with the authorities in the factory, the employers allow only their union to meet them. Some factories make the workers sign a contract at the time of joining promising to obey the rules and regulations of the factory, no matter how unjust. Under such conditions, it remains very challenging to empower more women to participate in the workers’ rights movement, since they lack free time for these activities. Women are still closed in the stereotype gender box that a patriarchal society has made for them and it would take time for them to come out and demand a change for a better life.

Despite all odds, “We are encouraging women workers to voice their problems openly, speak up for themselves and demand their rights. Building movements, instead of working individually, and taking collective action can go a long way in increasing the pace of progress towards achieving development justice in Myanmar and in other countries”, Thae said.

Shobha Shukla, CNS (Citizen News Service)
29 September 2017
(Shobha Shukla is the Managing Editor at CNS (Citizen News Service) and the above article is based upon her interview series of key women leaders in Asia Pacific region who have played a key role in striving for development justice. Follow her on Twitter @Shobha1Shukla)

Published in:
  • CNS (Citizen News Service)