Rangoon Factory Workers Toil for ‘Extremely Low’ Wages: Report

By Paul Vrieze 1 November 2013

RANGOON — A survey of factory workers in Rangoon has revealed they suffer from a range of labor rights violations, such as long working hours, unsafe conditions and intimidation for joining labor unions, while most are paid “extremely low” basic wages of between US$25 and $37 per month.

Researchers of the Burma-based Labor Rights Clinic, the Cooperation Program of Independent Laborers and the Construction-based Labor Union interviewed 114 workers employed in three clusters of factories near Rangoon in November, and the groups presented their findings in a report Wednesday.

Tens of thousands of workers are employed in labor-intensive industries at 14 industrial zones around Burma’s commercial capital. Garment and footwear factories are the biggest industrial employers, with about 100,000 workers total.

The report found that laborers worked “in unsafe, hot, overcrowded factories, typically for around 11 hours per day, 6 days per week.” Researchers said these “extremely low basic wages” forced laborers to work grueling schedules in order to support their families.

Burma is emerging from decades of repressive military rule and does not yet have a legal minimum wage. Among workers interviewed for the report, 55 percent earned a basic wage of between $25 and $37 per month.

These wage levels are the lowest in the region. Cambodian garment workers make a basic wage of about $80 per month. Minimum monthly wages for Bangladeshi workers are expected to rise to about $65, Reuters reported recently.

“[C]osts of living are too high for workers to rely on their basic salary and most workers need to work many hours of overtime to earn enough to make ends meet,” the Burma report said. Employers use “a complex system of bonus pay” to entice laborers to work overtime, after which most earn about $77 to $98 per month, the researchers found. They noted that even on this income, “the economic situation of most workers is dire.”

At many factories, labor activists and workers who join unions or organized collective actions, such as strikes, often face threats, intimidation or dismissal, the report said.

Labor rights activity and unionization is rapidly increasing in Burma after President Thein Sein’s reformist government passed the Labor Organization Law and the Trades Dispute Act last year. The laws create space for labor rights movements, after decades of brutal suppression of such activity under the previous military regime.

Numerous “weaknesses, holes and lack of concrete protection” in this legislation means, however, that there is still little legal protection for labor rights activity, according to the report. It said the laws contravened the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) conventions that guarantee freedom of association, the right to organize and collective bargaining.

“Employers, often in collusion with authorities, continue to trample over the rights of workers,” the researchers said, adding that “there is still a lack of political will to genuinely protect and promote labor rights.”

Labor dispute resolution bodies function poorly and often side with employers, according to the report, which said the Peace Assembly Law, which sets a one-year prison sentence for organizing an unauthorized protest, continues to be used against labor activists.

Burma is expected to see a major increase in foreign investment in low-cost manufacturing in coming years as a result of ongoing legislative and economic reforms. The report warned that the poor labor rights situation needs to be addressed if the country wants to gain genuine socio-economic benefits from this development.

Myint Soe, chairman of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA), said he questioned some of the report’s findings. “Safety, health and ventilation, I think, is not so bad. But [problems] can happen in small factories because they don’t have enough investment and they don’t have enough awareness,” he said.

Currently, the 1951 Factory Law sets out workplace conditions that factories need to follow. The law is reportedly being reviewed by the Labor Ministry.

Myint Soe confirmed that basic wage levels in Rangoon’s factories are usually at between $30 and $35 per month, adding, “That is our [wage] suggestion to our [garment] association members.”

Asked if he considered these wage levels low, he said, “Based on the situation and conditions in our country that … is sufficient.” He also dismissed claims that current wage levels forced laborers to work long hours of overtime, saying, “They can deny overtime if they don’t want to work. It’s based on an agreement and their desire.”

Steve Marshall, liaison officer for the ILO in Burma, said Parliament recently passed the Minimum Wage Law and the government is now carrying out research to determine the exact wage level and conditions.

“There is considerable work taking place in terms of establishing the actual minimum wage,” he said. “It needs to be done well, to ensure that it’s both good for the economy and good for the workers.”

Marshall said Burma’s labor rights situation was improving rapidly as a result of government reforms, adding that the number of registered labor unions has now grown to about 800.

“We are seeing the evolution of a more organized workforce,” he said, adding that new workers organizations should cooperate with the government and employers to develop good labor and economic policies.

He added, however, that “it’s still early days” for labor rights development in Burma. “There continue to be some concerns about people who establish unions, who find themselves in some way being harassed.”