RANGOON — In the heart of one of Rangoon’s industrial zones, sweat soaks the faces and hands of laborers while the shaking machinery produces a deafening noise. With the push of a shoeless foot onto an iron bar attached to a large, spinning industrial press, there is an unnervingly loud thud and a hole appears in the middle of a 2×2-inch piece of metal—mere centimeters away from the bandaged hand that holds it.
“[The workers] have learned to know how it feels when the machine is going to jump or act dangerous,” a worker explains. “When they sense it’s going to jump, they have just enough time to pull away. They will lose the piece of metal, but they don’t lose their finger.”
In the shop next door, a man with Down syndrome drills holes into large metal pipes in the corner. Young men sit flat on the cluttered ground swinging sledgehammers aimed at breaking parts off of scrap engine blocks that are placed between their outstretched legs. Some hits send sparks flying and some send chunks of metal shooting toward nearby coworkers. No one wears eye protection or gloves, and none of them have protective footwear. The smaller pieces will be melted down in a sweltering hot, open barrel in the middle of the room that spits fire into the air. With the molten metal, they will pour it into molds carved into the dirt floor, to cast new parts for a boat engine.
The scene is both appalling and strangely impressive. In workshop after workshop, the extremely dangerous working conditions remain the same in Rangoon’s industrial zones, along with a common but varied uniform consisting of thin shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops. Many of the workers are migrants that have moved to this city because there are no jobs or other ways to make a living back in their home villages, and most of them sleep at the workshops where they work. These sleeping areas are precarious at best, but can accommodate anywhere from two to 15 workers at a time.
Other options are few and far between. Laborers can work over eight hours a day, six days a week and may still not make enough money to afford to rent a place, even though housing costs in the area can be as low as 20,000 kyats (US$20) per month. In many cases, owners will live and work alongside their employees, facing the same hazardous environment day after day. It’s clear that the working conditions in the area are not the result of intentional exploitation, but rather, are due to extreme poverty and lack of knowledge.
As Rangoon begins its assimilation into the global business scene, construction is as feverish as the international criticism for labor rights abuses. In a move to help establish working conditions that meet international standards, the government will soon be implementing a new regulation for businesses to keep a certified safety officer on location. Additionally, though not yet required, companies can acquire fire safety certification from the city’s fire brigade, and there is even talk of establishing a minimum wage.
Despite these steps, there’s a chance that only the large companies—or those in view of the public—will see any real change. Many small factories and workshops, on the other hand, may be overlooked or forced to go out of business due to the costs of implementing these new requirements.
Proximity Designs, a social enterprise that manufactures low-cost irrigation systems, raises the possibility that just providing safety gear and regulations may not be enough. Workshop manager Thwin Naung Soe explains that in his experience, most safety issues stem from workers’ mentality and lack of proper safety measures,.
“When I first witnessed the working conditions in this area, many workers would not use the safety gear even if it was provided. … There is no awareness of a safe environment. They know their type of work will lead to accidents. They think ‘I’m a man working in this industry, it will happen someday, so why should I inconvenience myself every day?’”
In order to combat this mentality and construct safe working conditions, Thwin Naung Soe set up a system that revolves around education and putting employees through training demonstrations and certification classes. In turn, he says employees began to take more interest and find more value in their work; they developed a greater sense of self-worth and protecting themselves became the norm. Even the way that the Proximity Designs manufacturing team carry themselves is a stark contrast to those laboring in the workshops just down the street.
In one such workshop, a man pours a bucket of water over his head, sending steam shooting out from the nearby piles of orange-hot glowing metal rails. As if he was asked to emphasize the separation in concepts of safety, he responds with a simple “no” when asked if anyone gets burned at his workshop. He looks down to where one of the hot metal rails has brushed against his shin, causing his skin to peel off and blisters to form. “Just these,” he says.