RANGOON—The return of Western markets for Burma’s once-booming garment industry can help safeguard worker rights, claims an industry expert.
While the United States and Europe were always vigilant in ensuring workplace practices were up to scratch, Burma’s post-sanctions biggest export market of Japan only cared about the quality of items being delivered, said Myanmar Garment Association (MGA) Chairman Myint Soe.
“US garment firms are very concerned with labor rights. Normally, US garment companies check the working environment of factories and other labor suppliers before they give the green light for trade,” he told a press conference held by the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI).
“After US sanctions began, the MGA met with the former military government and we agreed to implement a ‘Look East’ policy. Therefore, we tried to work closely with Japan, which is very strict on the quality of items from Burma.
“But they are not concerned with labors rights,” he added. “They are only concerned with the items delivered. They did not accept even one wrong button. Therefore, we have to monitor our workers very strictly.”
In 2000, the garment industry in Burma was booming with 54 percent of orders from the United States and 37 percent from Europe. Garment exports in 2001 reached a record US $829 million compared with $770 million in 2011, according to official MGA data.
“We tried to survive after the US sanctions started in 2003. The US had more than 50 percent of the Burmese garment market-share and they would order more than 100,000 items of a single design,” said Myint Soe.
Despite the Japanese market accounting for the largest current share of Burma’s garment exports—$348 million in 2011 and $183 million in 2010—it does not hold the potential of the West, said Myint Soe. Japanese garment companies only generally order 3,000-4,000 items per design, he added.
“We will try to get back to the US market and get the GSP [Generalized System of Preferences] from Europe for low tax,” he said. “Our government is undergoing the political and economic reform. Our neighbors in Asia such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and Laos get a good chance to export to Western and Europe market. Why can’t we?”
The European Union and World Trade Organization GSP reduces tariffs for developing nations, but Burma was removed from the scheme due to its poor record on worker rights, particularly forced labor. But the nation’s re-admittance to full membership of the International Labor Organization on June 14 has paved the way for a resumption of the GSP.
“To compete with our neighbors, we also need the supporting infrastructure such as electricity supply and transportation,” added Myint Soe.
Garment factory owners decided to outline their concerns to the media for the first time despite industry bosses largely refusing to talk to journalists during worker strikes and protests earlier in the year.
Textile workers from Rangoon’s Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone demanded a wage hike and other labor rights including setting up workers’ associations. As a result, factory owners agreed to improve their basic pay and provide medical care, daily meals, overtime and holidays.
Although industry bosses initially agreed to their demands, some then reneged on the deal prompting further protests and industrial action.
“Actually, the garment factory pays 10 to 15 percent of total costs on sewing fees,” said Sandar, who owns three garment factories. “And according to our geographical situation, we are so far from Malaysia and Singapore where we buy the raw materials, as well as from South Korea and Japan where we send the finished product.”
After US sanctions, most skilled Burmese laborers went to other countries where there were developed garment industries such as Thailand. As the local garment industries could not offer a good salary, workers would only stay for three or four months to learn the trade before moving abroad, said Khine Khine New, joint-secretary of the UMFCCI.
“We have asked the government to extend working hours to 28 hours for a week as we have to export items on time,” added Sandar.
According to MGA data for July 2012, more than 85,000 workers are currently employed in the Burmese garment industry.