Myanmar garment workers are trapped in debt and poverty

Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Women workers in garment factory in Hlaing Thar Yar Industrial Zone, are going to their works. This is where Oxfam conducted research for Made in Myanmar report. Photo by: Kaung Htet/ Oxfam

Myanmar garment workers are living in poverty and forced to borrow money to buy food, despite working up to 11 hours a day, six days a week, according to an Oxfam report released today.
Oxfam’s briefing paper, ‘Made in Myanmar: Entrenched Poverty or decent jobs for Garment Workers?’ presents findings from a survey of mostly female garment workers across 22 factories in industrial zones in and around Yangon. The research was conducted by Oxfam, Cooperative Committee of Trade Unions (CCTU), 88 Generation Peace and Open Society, Action Labor Rights (ALR), and Labour Rights Defenders & Promoters (LRDP).

The report finds that the workers overwhelmingly face low pay, verbal abuse by supervisors, unsafe conditions and forced overtime.

Workers told Oxfam that even including exhausting levels of overtime, their average take home monthly pay of 122,000 K ($ 98) per month left them unable to pay for basic costs. Almost half of all workers surveyed are trapped in debt, saying they borrow money to pay for basic items like food, transport and accommodation.

In addition to facing low wages and indebtedness, the report finds that workers face safety hazards and oppressive working environments.

“More than one in three workers told us they had been injured at work. Many said they are afraid of factory fires, that building exits are often blocked or even locked. Workers also face wage deductions and even dismissal if they take sick leave and many told us they cannot even use the toilet whilst working a shift. These conditions are completely unacceptable for a 21st century garment industry.” said Oxfam in Myanmar Country Director, Paul Joicey.

Following decades of economic isolation, democratic reforms in 2011 have seen global retail heavyweights like Gap, H&M, Primark and Adidas start sourcing from Myanmar. The report recommends that these companies ensure workers are free to negotiate higher wages through their trade unions, have access to regular safety trainings and effective grievance processes to raise safety concerns.

Ahead of International Human Rights Day tomorrow, Oxfam is calling on international companies buying garments from Myanmar as well as their supplier factories to take urgent action to address these unsafe and exploitative conditions.

Oxfam is also urging greater transparency and monitoring of the industry.

“Currently many overseas companies buying from Myanmar are secretive about the locations of supplier factories. This means it is not possible to independently monitor workers’ conditions. We are calling on all international companies sourcing from Myanmar to follow to the lead of H&M and Adidas by publishing the locations of supplier factories as a first easy step towards more ethical sourcing” Mr Joicey said.

Notes to editors: 
  • The research was conducted in factories in industrial zones including Dagon Seikkan, Shwe Lin Pan, Mingaladon, Bago, Thilawa and Hlaing Thayar
  • Even earning an average of 122,000k / $98 a month (with overtime and bonuses), three in four garment workers say they are unable to cover the cost of basic needs like food, medicine and transport.
  • 43% of workers are in debt owing an average of 57,400K ($46), almost all saying they borrow money to basic household items
  • Workers spend more than half of their base salary on accommodation alone
  • Almost one in four workers reported doing forced overtime and several reported doing unpaid overtime.
  • Almost a third of workers (31 percent) said they had experienced verbal or other abuse by supervisors or management.
  • 43% of workers said they do not feel safe inside the factory
  • Almost 90 percent of workers had been unable to save any of their income.
  • More than a third of workers surveyed said they had not signed a contract with the factory and 64 percent did not know the length of their employment contract.
  • In September Oxfam published a report looking at inequality and people working but trapped in poverty in five African and Asian countries

Oxfam works with partners around the world to find lasting solutions to poverty and injustice. As part of Oxfam International, a confederation of 17 Oxfam affiliates, we work in over 90 countries globally. Oxfam has been working in Myanmar since 2008.

Contact information: 

Jasmine Burnley, Oxfam in Myanmar, Advocacy and Communications Manager / Telephone: +95 (0)9 256 396 451

Yee Mon Oo, Oxfam in Myanmar, Media and Communications Coordinator / Telephone: +95 (0)9450062997