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20 Jul 2019

Jason Thomas, The ASEAN Post

Myanmar: Garment industry needs massive reforms in women and labour rights; human rights conditions affect growth

"Revamping Myanmar's garment industry," 16 July 2019

With minimum wages lower than China, Cambodia and Vietnam – all neighbouring countries with established garment manufacturing sectors of their own – Myanmar has attracted orders from international retailers such as Adidas, Gap, H&M and Marks & Spencer.

 Leading the country’s manufactured goods export sector, Myanmar’s garment exports rose from US$349 million in 2010 to nearly US$4.6 billion last year – making up around 10 percent of the country’s export revenues.

An IL...‘Weaving Gender: Challenges and opportunities for the Myanmar garment industry’ found that there were limited opportunities for women already working in the sector to learn new skills or to seek a promotion. Some evidence of sexual harassment was found in most of the 16 factories the ILO surveyed for the report, which also concluded that factories generally lack formal policies and processes to effectively identify and address workplace harassment and abuse.

A Myanmar trade union...alleged unfair dismissals at the Chinese-owned Fu Yuen Garment Co. Ltd factory... led to nearly two months of strikes that culminated in clashes with a group of people a protest leader said were “hired thugs”.

The factory workers said they set up a union to address concerns about abuse from managers, limited toilet breaks and unbearably hot working conditions. While most of these complaints were resolved, Fu Yuen’s refusal to re-hire the 30 workers who organised the strike after being dismissed for allegedly disrupting production and violating company rules led to more protests – and the eventual clash with the armed mob which left dozens injured.

Gender empowerment and freedom of association aren’t the only issues Myanmar’s garment sector are facing.

The European Union’s (EU) potential withdrawal of its Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preference scheme has cast an even bigger shadow over the industry, especially with 60 percent of Myanmar’s garment exports heading to the bloc.

Failure to address these issues will no doubt severely hurt the immense potential of one of Myanmar’s rare economic success stories.