LABOUR and human rights abuses have been found to be rife in Burma’s garment industry with many workers earning below minimum wage and children as young as 14 being employed in some factories, a new report has found.
The report, issued by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), a Netherlands-based non-profit organisation, found that many western multinational corporations are now switching to Burma for production but labour abuses within these factories are at troubling levels.
The garment industry is booming, with Burma proving cheaper as a production hub than other garment producing countries like Thailand, Cambodia, China and Indonesia. Its draw is its huge pool of cheap labour and favourable import and export tariffs that have brought a plethora of multinational corporations all wanting to find producers that can make clothes quickly and cheaply.
And while this has fuelled the burgeoning economy of the recently democratic nation, it has brought with it a raft of other problems within the industry itself.
As the report details, Burma’s total export value of garments in 2014 reached US$986 million, nearly triple the value of the 2010’s garment exports. According to the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA), garment exports totalled US$1.46 billion in 2015, accounting for 10 percent of the country’s export revenues.
Following the lifting of sanctions due to the country’s move towards democracy, the number of garment factories has grown from 130 factories to the current number of over 400 factories.
As of 2016, the rapidly growing garment industry was employing around 350,000 workers, 90 percent of whom are women. MGMA estimates that the industry will employ around 1.5 million workers by the year 2024.
The report studied 12 factories in and around Yangon city and uncovered a series of worrying labour rights and human rights issues.
— SOMO (@SOMO) February 5, 2017
SOMO’s findings included a low level of unionisation, stating that active independent unions are scarce and that many workers have no idea about the power of collective bargaining or their right to freedom of association.
Low wages and unlawful deductions were discovered in many of the factories, with some staff earning below the minimum wage and being forced to work long days for no extra pay. Workers reported they regularly work more than 60 hours per week.
Employers also manipulated the system by exploiting apprenticeships so they didn’t have to pay the permanent staff rate and by implementing wage deductions for days of absence even if the employee was sick.
Troublingly, child labour was found to be rife. The report found that workers under 18 years old were employed at all 12 investigated factories and half of the factories had workers who were younger than 15 years old when they started.
Almost half of the interviewed workers did not sign a contract, leaving them in the dark as to their entitlements and rights. This means very few employees were likely to complain about working conditions. The fear of punishment and losing their job also means that workplace grievances often go unmentioned.
The report concludes that the actors in the garment industry and those involved in governments urgently need to rethink their policies and practices in Burma.
The rush to invest can be a powerful force in developing the nation but it comes fraught with perils and must be handled in a considerate fashion in a country that still has a quarter of its population living in poverty.
The report urges the government of Burma to amend, develop and uphold progressive pro-labour laws that are in line with the highest international standards.
SOMO also urged retailers and governments to rethink policies and practices relating to Burma to “head off a crisis before it escalates”. The organisation called for an “industry-wide approach”. It said companies should join forces on risk analysis, share findings on social audits and investigations, and jointly address non-compliance at suppliers, in close co-operation with local stakeholders.
Burma is at a delicate point in its transition to full democracy, with the country still fraught with conflict and the military still playing a major role in public life. The garment industry, given its size and impact in the country, should be working towards enabling the stabilising process and ensure that it does not become a player in the unrest or exacerbate inequality in the nation.