Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Stitching together a life (Feature)

Mizzima News
Tuesday, 18 November 2008 19:20

'Burma's garment workers and the struggle to survive '

On virtually any given morning, as the first rays of sun break through tropical foliage and illuminate the factory walls and gates of Rangoon's Hlaing Tharyar industrial zones, a familiar sight can be seen. Along the roads leading to the factories, seemingly endless streams of female workers, faces smeared with thanakha and lunch boxes in tow, make their way to Burma's garment factories for another arduous day of work.

Even after the debilitative toll of U.S.-led sanctions some five years previously, government statistics still sight some 100,000 young women as reliant upon the industry for their basic livelihood.

Without doubt, a portion of money invested in business in Burma finds its way into the generals' coffers. However companies sourcing garments from Burma are also helping in putting food on people's plates.

"I have no other options except to do this job," relates a worker at the MIT Garment Factory in Rangoon's South Dagon Industrial Zone. "Actually, it is tiring work, but I cannot get any other job."

Ma Nway, originally from Sagaing Division in central Burma, told of how she came to be employed in Rangoon's garment industry: "There are no assured regular income jobs in my village. I am the eldest of four siblings and have only a grade seven education. My aunt working here called me to work here, so I came. Now, occasionally, I can send 5,000 to 10,000 kyat (1 US$ = 1,250 kyat) back to my family.

Where then, if at all, can the line to be drawn between Burma's garment factories lining the golden pockets of Burma's military rulers and filling the lunch pails of the industries tens of thousands of domestic workers?

The "lack of" opportunity cost

Garment workers in Hlaing Thar Yar Industrial Zone of Rangoon. Long working hours but low pay are common. Photo: Mizzima

"For women, the garment factories of Rangoon offer very rare job alternatives," tells a young female employee in one of Hlaing Tharyar's factories. "If we don't want to work in these factories, we will have to sell things or work as masons."

"Most of the workers here share a similar problem, since they have no idea what to do if they lose this job, they have to do this work for their families," adds another of the industry's workers.

"I'd like to be a tailor at home when I quit this job, but I can't expect many orders from my neighborhood, people can hardly afford to buy one new dress per year," adds Ma Sein , a slightly older member of the garment workforce.

A majority of the industry's employees come from rural areas and lack a proper education – the average duration of a child's educational curriculum in Burma being eight years of schooling.

"I arrived from my village and have been here [in the garment factory] for over three years," says Khin Kyi, "I had no other choice, as I am without a good education or a job to do at home. I can easily get a job here from any of the garment factories. They don't ask for academic qualifications."

And even for those lucky enough to have gotten a chance to pursue their education at higher levels, opportunities for gainful employment are often still difficult to come by.

"Because of a contact and I happened to be jobless, I began working here," says Ma Yu, a 25-year old buyer in a garment factory and holder of a B.A. in History. In her position she earns 70,000 kyat per month – permitting her what she describes as a relatively comfortable life in Rangoon while also allowing her to support other family members.

However, for those looking or needing a level of income greater than what the textile factories can offer, difficult decisions regarding employment need often be made – decisions which can expose women to other means of exploitation.

"Although I am working here [in a massage parlor] just for the good income, there is no happiness and I am very much disappointed. We have to knead whoever is in the room according to their command. Sometimes when I have to be with drunkard, I become very annoyed," laments one of the throngs of women who have sought some form of economic security in the business.

Poverty, a domestically depressed economy and a dilapidated educational system are three of the factors that have merged to create the impetus for tens of thousands of women to seek work in Burma's garment factories.

The numbers game

Mizzima's research into the expected wages of hourly garment workers found a base monthly salary of 20,000 kyat for unskilled labor. However, the income that garment factory employees can expect to receive varies considerably, dependent upon both the job performed and the factory concerned.

"Lower level helpers can get 25,000 to 30,000 kyat per month, including overtime. An operator can get 40,000 to 50,000 per month, while graduated office staff can get about 70,000 kyat," says a worker at the MIT Garment Factory.

They are working here, she continued, because they have no other job to do. They do not want to work here since it is very exhausting, but they have no other job contacts. Helpers do not earn enough for their families with a salary of 20,000 or 30,000 kyat.

For those who contribute more skill to the manufacturing process, a higher income can generally be expected. Tailors are typically paid on an output basis and can often look to take home up to 50,000 kyat or more per month.

"Currently, the income of a female tailor is a minimum of 30,000 kyat to more than 70,000 kyat per month, according to the amount of work done and working period," relates an employee of the conditions in her factory in one of Rangoon's outlying communities. She contends that low-level employees are the minority in the factory, and these are the people who struggle to scrape out an existence.

At the extreme opposite end of the pay scale to that of unskilled labor, the highest salaried laborers, called "all supers" and "line supers," who supervise the workers, can take home from 100,000 kyat to 300,000 kyat a month, which, in Burma, places them firmly in the country's middle class.

When compared with the average wage of a daily laborer in Burma – estimated by the U.S. Department of State at between 500 and 1,000 kyat (or $0.40 to $0.80) – the earnings of a garment worker translates to 937 kyat per diem for lower-level employees, or hedging toward the upper limit of what the average laborer in Rangoon could expect to earn, but well shy of what is needed to ensure subsistence existence – a meal at a typical restaurant in Rangoon costing 1,000 kyat.

Yet for those who work as tailors, for example, a 40,000 kyat monthly income equates to an annual income of just over US$ 384, double the country-wide average and affording a modest level of economic standing.

This is not to say that the social existence of many Burmese garment workers is anything short of extreme hardship. But, what it also alludes to is the overall depressed nature of the Burmese economy, where a pair of earrings can be bought on the sidewalks for 50 kyat and a train ride to work for 20 kyat.

Suffering under the weight of sanctions

From a height of 829 million dollars earned from the export of garments in 2001, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, official statistics devalue earnings by 66 percent, to a total of 282 million dollars, for fiscal year 2007-2008.

The trend of the Burmese garment industry's decreasing relevance to the state sector is also borne out in Burma Economic Watch's 2008 study on the economy of Burma, which chronicles a garment exporting industry in decline since 2003, with the export value from the industry now ranking well behind that of gas, teak and other woods, pulses and beans.

The garment industry's significant drop in earnings in the first decade of the century is largely attributable to the impact of sanctions, which heavily effected export markets – especially to the United States.

In 2001 exports of garments to the United States accounted for 408 million dollars, or 49 percent of Burma's total export earnings from the industry. But, with the imposition of extensive sanctions stemming from 2003's Burma Freedom and Democracy Act, exports to the United States were nonexistent by 2005.

Burma scholar David Steinberg subsequently estimated the impact of sanctions to be the closure of some 64 textile factories and an eventual loss in domestic jobs totaling approximately 200,000, predominantly among young women.

Additionally, a 2005 study by the Japanese Institute of Developing Economies discovered that the garment factories most severely affected by boycotts and sanctions have been small and medium-sized domestic private firms and their workers.

Captive to failed policies

Economic and social innovations of recent decades have largely passed Burma by. It is within this context that the garment industry finds itself as one of preciously few venues striving to practice modern methods of mass production.

Hard fought, yet eventually won, battles for labor rights – and more – have before spawned from might have been thought unlikely breeding grounds. With their backs against the icy waters of the Baltic Sea, a strike of some 17,000 workers at the Gdansk Shipyard in 1980 realized ultimate victory on the political stage with the election, ten years later, of vocational school graduate and 1983 Nobel Laureate Lech Walesa to the Polish Presidency.

In early 2007 – well before monk-led protests captured the world's headlines – there was a large strike in the Taw Win Garment Factory over insufficient salaries. And only last month, workers at the MP Garment Factory went on strike over long hours and low pay.

Yet, ultimately, the situation that Burma's garment industry laborers find themselves in is but one more commentary on the depressed nature of the Burmese state and infrastructure, as well as the battle being waged over Burma in international forums well above the heads of the helpers and tailors of Hlaing Tharyar and the other industrial parks.

Garment jobs, with their long hours and low pay are far from what Burma's work force needs and deserves. Yet, the question has to be asked: Are they the best in a list of poor options available to those who staff the factories, people trying to do their best to be able to live one day at a time?

Mizzima reporters in Rangoon, Burma, and Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributed to this report. All names in the write-up have been altered as a precaution to protect the identity of the individuals concerned.

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