Advancing the Rights of Women Workers through the 2020 Elections

Seik Nyan and Ye Yint Khant Maung explore the difficulties of women workers and discuss how political parties should address it.

Ma Nwet Yin Win, a former labour unionist at Tai Yee Garment factory in Yangon, says she is not interested in the 2020 election. She was an enthusiastic campaigner for the NLD in 2015, but now her passion has subsided. She may not even vote. She is not alone. The Myanmar Times reported in July that a majority of local migrant workers showed little interest in voting in the coming general election. In our interviews, many organizations which are helping local migrant workers also confirmed that many workers they spoke to are not interested in voting in this coming election. Since 2015, most workers and labour rights activists have grown frustrated with the situation they find themselves in, due to the weakness of labour laws, labour exploitation by employers, and the feeling that the government is not doing much of anything for them.

Ma Nwet Yin Win is one of millions of women workers who want change. Sadly, few of them see the approaching election as an avenue for that change. Disappointed by all major political parties, worker rights activists are instead running as independent candidates. Could they offer a new hope? 

Eleven independent candidates were recently introduced to the public, activists representing industrial workers and farmers, and aiming to defend the rights of working people. The fact that they would run outside any organized party shows their level of frustration with the current government’s record, and with institutional politics in general. The candidates will contest in constituencies where industrial workers live, such as Hlaing Thar Yar and Htatabin, because these labour-rights candidates think the voices and demands of workers have been neglected by the NLD government. They feel that it is now time to raise workers’ concerns in Parliament themselves. But the question remains: how far can the voices of workers go? Even if all of these eleven candidates were to be elected in the coming 2020 election, highly unlikely in any case, the reality is that the eleven candidates will struggle to catalyze substantive change for women workers. Fundamentally, the issue is that prevailing political parties pay minimal attention to the plight of workers. Women workers, whose everyday struggles are often different and more exacerbated than their men counterparts, are especially neglected. In this context, disappointment could turn into despair. And from despair, it could turn into anger.

Indeed, workers (and farmers) in general have been ignored by the government and all major parties. They continue to suffer exploitation at the hands of many unscrupulous business owners and managers and lack recourse or support from the state. Women workers, in particular, have been ignored in public discourse and politics to the point that they feel invisible.

Independent candidates vowing to defend the working class can be catalysts for conversations about the rights of women workers. They offer hope for pro-worker and pro-farmer parties to emerge in coming years. But for now, a more realistic objective would be to foreground the plight and interests of women workers as a salient topic for all political parties. Prevailing political parties have every reason to target women workers. Women workers account for almost half of the urban voters and their votes are critical for any political party trying to win seats in urban constituencies. For this reason alone, political parties should prioritize the labour rights of women workers on their agenda and their platforms for the 2020 elections. Beyond politicking, women workers hold the key to unlocking Myanmar’s current and future growth. Women workers are an important foundation for a growing society and the future of Myanmar, whether it is in the economic, social or political future. A decade on, it is time for women workers to enjoy some of the fruits of the transition. 

Rather than simply saying, as they often do, ‘we will make sure to improve the conditions for workers’, political parties need to develop and promote through campaigns, as well as implement realistic, efficient and humane policies that can effectively address the troubles of women workers. These troubles are many: workplace harassment, insufficient wages, forced overtime, workplace discrimination, the additional and unacceptable hardships facing pregnant workers, and the general weaknesses of the current labour laws in protecting workers’ rights. If these issues are not captured in campaigns and the overall discourse surrounding this coming election, the political participation of women workers could be very low. If political parties take these issues seriously, they can catalyze greater turnout and attract women workers to vote for their parties.

Women in the Economy: The Garment Sector

Manufacturing industries, and the garment sector in particular, were a major export sector before the pandemic. The garment sector is a key driver of Myanmar’s economic growth and employs more than 1.5 million workers. Among them, over 90 percent are women, and beyond providing an income to their household, their remittances play a prominent role in the country’s rural economy. According to data collected by the ILO in 16 foreign-owned-garment factories in 2018 and published in their 2019 report “Weaving Gender: Challenges and Opportunities for the Myanmar Garment Industry”, women in the garment sector are “highly educated” (in the sense that their level of education places them, as a group, above the national average). A majority are young single women, who came to work in Yangon. 86 percent of the survey respondents give 50 percent or more of their salary to their family. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, in April 2020, more than 100 garment businesses (mainly Chinese owned) closed––some foreign employers fled the country and around 300,000 workers lost their jobs. While the weakness of infrastructure persists and garment exports remain low due to the pandemic, investors are still interested in investing in the Myanmar garment sector. Myanmar’s high growth potential in garment manufacturing is due to its young labour force and low labour costs. Fitch Solution estimates that exports in Myanmar grew at a compound annual growth rate of about 37 percent between 2010 and 2019. Its size and potential beg the question: why aren’t major political parties targeting this sector and the millions of workers, mostly women, who fuel it? 

The garment sector is the largest employer of young women in Myanmar, but working conditions are notoriously bad. Most young women working in the garment industry are internal migrants. Even though they come from all parts of Myanmar, a majority of them come from Magway, Bago, Rakhine and the Ayeyarwaddy Delta. Much of the influx to Yangon took place after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, and even more so after 2010, when the country began its transition towards a democratic government and opening up to more foreign investment. The grievances of women workers include long hours of work and forced overtime without any chance to push for change in their working condition. Almost a decade into the economic opening of Myanmar, garment factories have yet to prepare their workplaces in gender-sensitive ways. Women’s needs are either inadequately considered or not considered at all.

Most factories sit in the industrial zones of Yangon, the economic hub of Myanmar, as well as in Mandalay and Pathein with a mix of large and small textile industries. With garments being a labour-intensive industry that create hundreds of thousands of jobs, investments in the sector are typically welcomed by governments. The manufacturing process of a garment factory follows: taking fabric from a warehouse, marking and cutting, sewing lines and ironing and packing (finishing).[1] There are also technicians who fix the machines. The majority of employees, including supervisory roles, are women workers, though some factories have men supervisors. Machine technicians tend to be foreign men.

Employers prefer to employ women in these factories. Often, they assume that women are more capable of completing detail-oriented tasks. With a majority women workforce, women and women-related issues become the drivers of labour disputes. Sexual harassment, the health and safety, the misconduct of factory management––these are only some of the issues that are often unique to women workers. In the garment sector, the majority of unionists are women and they have been targeted whenever factory disputes occur regardless of the reason. Ma Ei Thanda Aye, from Dagon Seikkan Industrial Zone said, ‘soon after I tried to organize the factory union, I was dismissed and had to strike for eleven days. While I got my job back, I faced much discrimination, such as not being allowed to work overtime [meaning a reduced income], [Supervisors are] always waiting for my mistakes at work to find a reason to expel me, often with threats of a warning letter [with dismissal as the next step]’.[2]  Blacklisting of unionists is a tactic that employers use to hinder organizing trade unions inside factories. Factory managers share lists of active unionists with one another in an attempt to avoid employing them in their factories.[3] But unionists are the only agents of change for workers. They are critical advocates for legal solutions to workplace grievances and necessary educators of worker rights, all of which can prevent the violation of labour rights. One thing is obvious from the above: the politics of the garment industry are not worker-friendly and that will only change when politicians decide to step up and change it.

Women Workers and Harrassment in the Workplace

There is a strong incentive to invest in Myanmar because it offers one of the lowest wages in the region. Low wages are possible due to a surplus of labour. Since the job opportunities available to young women are scarce, employers are able to leverage any employee resistance to the employers, by dismissing any demands for improved working conditions. Threats of being dismissed, combined with the limited freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, lead to a great degree of silence about the injustice happening inside Myanmar’s garment factories. Forced overtime, verbal abuses, sexual harassment, restricting workers movements to the factory compound, dangerous working environment, intimidating workers, and workplace discrimination, are common problems faced by women workers in Myanmar industrial zones.

Harassment and pressure by supervisors are common experiences amongst garment-women-workers, including sexual harassment. The report, previously mentioned, “Weaving Gender: Challenges and Opportunities for the Myanmar Garment Industry” published by the ILO in 2019 provides evidence of women workers facing sexual harassment in their workplace. Sexual harassment by workers’ supervisors are very low, according to the data they collected from 16 foreign-owned garment factories.[4] However, this data does not reflect the general condition inside other factories. Harassment from supervisors is common and frequent in almost all garment factories[5], particularly that of verbal abuse. The majority of workers, including supervisors, are women in most of the garment factories. Supervisors pressure the workers with humiliating words like “prostitute”, “whore”, “dog”, “bitch” and other forms of explicit comments, in an effort to reach the expected targets. There is a shared belief that workers will be more productive if they are verbally insulted.[6] There is no actual complaint mechanism to stop this abuse in the workplace. If there is harassment between workers, he or she will have to sign a warning letter in front of the factory management. This strategy is ineffective if the abuse comes from supervisors, especially since there is no effective official mechanism to report violations by supervisors.[7] Physical abuse by women supervisors is not common, but it does happen.

Sexual assaults by male machine technicians and supervisors are the problems that frequently occur. A number of assaults by technicians have been reported in the media: the sexual assaults of Sri Lanka technician at Saung Oo Shwe Nay factory, and the case of Amava Apparel factory in Pathein. But, these kinds of problems are hard to capture and control due to the hierarchical power relations inside factories. Men supervisors enjoy a large degree of impunity in cases of sexual harassment, with the most prevalent problems being: asking for sexual favors, undesired physical contact, such as touching of women workers, pinching or assaults and other verbal assaults. In the usual management hierarchy, supervisors have the power to favor workers by giving them smaller daily targets, enabling greater chances for a salary increase, lowering the chance of dismissal, leave and toilet break allowances, and avoiding punishment if targeted tasks are incomplete. If women workers refuse to fulfill the whims of the supervisor, there is a high possibility of being dismissed, and having to work in an inconvenient (and uncomfortable) workplace, amongst other harms.[8]

In order to maintain a good relationship with supervisors, some workers go to the supervisors’ homes to help with household work when the factory is close on holiday.[9] This kind of problem is not prevalent where men are the supervisors, though verbal abuse from male technicians remain a perennial issue. But men are the minority of workforce in every garment factory. 

In one factory in the Shwe Pyi Thar Industrial Zone, a Chinese- Myanmar translator asked a young woman worker to work as a prostitute for him, promising her increased compensation over her current wages. The girl was frightened and began weeping. But, there was nothing she could do–worsened by the fear of possibly being dismissed. Thanks to her co-workers, the problem came to the attention of the manager (a woman). The manager asked both this woman (the victim) and translator about the incident at a meeting. The girl was terrified and answered that he did not ask her to act as prostitute. If she had answered truthfully, she could have lost her job. The lack of a confidential mechanism or recourse to handle sexual harassment situations is a common problem in most of factories.

Even if a woman worker complains that she is harassed by a man in a more senior position, the human resource manager will say “He is just teasing because he cares for you. He is your teacher”.[10] The definition of sexual harassment in the factory, especially from the management side, is framed in terms of an exclusively sexual nature. Verbal harassment is not included. Ma Kha Kha from Let’s Help Each Other (LHEO) said, “The foreign technicians [mostly Chinese] can say ‘I love you, let’s be a couple’ and dirty words in Burmese”.[11] This kind of disrespect from senior men to young women workers in factories is common. In the case of Amava Apparel factory, the HR manager told The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) that “It is just speaking and not a sexual activity. It is not a big deal. We warned him by showing him the employment contract.” This technician had been finally dismissed after the case received public outrage. Some women workers think that touching woman’s buttocks and hugging without consent is only teasing, when in fact they are being sexually harassed.[12] Further, women workers’ larger concern with job dismissal have the tendency to overshadow the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. 

The factory is not the only place where women workers face harassment. They face harassment at the Healthcare center of the Social Security Board. There is discriminatory treatment on the grounds of appearance. Ma Ei Thanda Aye said that the beautiful young women can get medical leave more easily than others.[13]

Two years ago, an event on Gender and Workplace was held in UMFCCI (Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry) which was organized by local NGOs and labour rights organizations. One of the objectives of the event was to raise awareness about gender discrimination and sexual violence/abuse in workplace, particularly in the garment sector. It was really, a place where workers could convey their message to employers in the hope that their concerns would be heard. However, even though the event was held at the right place, it did not receive attention from the right groups. For example, there were no representatives from UMFCCI or Myanmar Garment Manufacturing Association (MGMA) at the event. This clearly points to how little employers pay attention to gender issues inside the garment factories.

Despite how serious and pervasive sexual and other forms of harassment are in the factories, this issue remains totally unaddressed by government and major parties. Think of how much support a candidate could gain by simply recognizing the severity of the situation and vowing to stand up for the rights, integrity and dignity of women workers. If political parties want women workers to vote, they must acknowledge the problem of harassment that causes widespread suffering on a daily basis. Empowerment of women is not only about the number of women candidates in election, but also implementing practical solutions to address the plight of women workers. If the political parties neglect this issue as an unimportant one, this problem will not be solved easily, existed for a long time in our society and women empowerment of current politics will be pointless.

Paying a Decent Wage: The Minimum Wage and Labour Violations

The current minimum wage of 4,800 MMK is not a sufficient amount for a typical household of workers (usually 4 members: 2 parents and 2.2 Children). Therefore, workers and unions have been trying to increase the stipulated minimum wage since the end of 2019. During the first discussion, workers wanted to receive 5,600 MMK per day. But only 3,600 MMK was approved, with a new wage set at 4,800 MMK in May 2018. Workers have decried the amount. It is not a decent wage, and is simply not enough to give back to their families. Generally, a major portion of their salary is spent on rent and the high cost of living in the urban area. One worker said that she couldn’t save anything from her salary despite working for five years. Many garment workers cannot save from their salary, while some are even in debt at the end of the month. This is especially problematic since the majority of young women working in the garment industry originally left with the intention of supporting their families in their hometown or family living with them.

Beyond the amount, the law itself is a problem. According to the Minimum Wage Rules 2013, employers can give a worker 50 percent of the minimum wages during the first three months of apprenticeship, and 75 percent of minimum wages during the next three months of probation period. For unexperienced workers, they have no chance of receiving the full amount of minimum wages in the factory. During the three months of apprenticeship, employers have to teach workers to be able to complete the standard expected output per day of the factory. But in reality, interviewed workers confirmed that there are no such trainings or skill development programs inside the factory to enhance their productivity. Every worker, including apprentices, was expected to work to finish their daily expected output from the start of their employment. But, apprentices and workers in probation period do not receive the full minimum wage amount, according to the law.

Employers commonly dismissed workers before they obtain full minimum wage. One worker from Dagon Seikkan Industrial Zone said, “a worker from our factory, had been dismissed two days before the end of her probation period.” In such cases, these workers do not have employment contracts. Workers also do not know what employment contracts are. In one factory, a worker needed to re-apply for the job position she was working in every three months to secure her current position. Because factory management are unwilling to give the full minimum wage, the management will intentionally look for the reason to fire them. Employers commonly utilize this tactic in order to avoid the fiscal burden of paying minimum wage. [14] 

Workers receive their wages in two forms: basic salary and compensation in other forms: such as incentives for not taking any leaves within a month, and a finished product fee (“A Htal Kyae”). The basic salary is calculated in accordance with the legal minimum wage, while other forms of compensation are dependent on the particular policies inside factory. A Htal Kyae, in contrast, is an amount of money that workers receive based on how many finished products they have done. In one sewing line, there are many points depending on the type of clothing–with one worker assigned to each point of the line. The number of workers needed depends on the type of clothing and designs. The a htal kyae is calculated by the number of complete products on a sewing line, and distributed proportionately to 20 to 30 workers of a sewing line. In factories with A Htal Kyae, there is no overtime wage, and workers are forced to work more than others while being paid an insufficient wage. As a consequence, most workers go to work even on holidays in order to earn the finished-product fees. The lack of a decent wage is a cause of the workers’ continuing exploitation. For the workers, however, it is the only way to have more income. Sometimes, employers and the HR manager easily deduct the bonus and incentives apart from the basic salary without proper calculation. When workers direct questions related to the salary deduction towards the employer, they are scolded and physically abused. It is only natural that workers ask, where is the government support in this equation? Where are the political parties and candidates who are willing to promote decent work with decent wages for all labourers?

Amongst political parties with development policies, the dismissal of the wage problems of women workers as insignificant has alienated workers. As a result, much of Myanmar’s population has no personal incentive to participate in politics, to vote. Politicians may act like the current wage is sufficient for workers and argue that attempting an increase is unfair, especially in the time of a pandemic. In fact, the wage problem of Myanmar workers has been in existence since the enactment of the 2013 Minimum Wage Law and Rules. Development policies that ignore key concerns of the women worker majority are not designed to be sustainable or beneficial for the nation. Whether to compel people to vote, to win votes, or to promote the development of Myanmar, becoming a champion of a decent wage is a win-win for all parties.

Overtime, Leave, and Personal Safety

Overtime is legally allowed in Myanmar and regulated under a Directive. Adults workers in factories need to work 8 hours per day and 44 hours per week. Any working hours that exceed the 44 hour limit is considered overtime, with a maximum of 20 overtime hours per week (i.e. 15 hours from Monday to Friday (3 hours ´5 days) and 5 hours for Saturday). Sometimes, workers are under huge pressure to work overtime hours that far exceed the 20-hour limit, even if they don’t want. Overtime is framed as a mandatory duty of workers upon applying to the job at garment factory. Workers are expected to agree that they will work overtime as the factory needs’ demands it.

In general, workers are interested in working overtime because they receive more income, but few workers want to do it every day. Some factories use a strategy of forced overtime when they do not have enough workers to agree to do the job they needed. “Forced overtime” is when the worker refuses to work exceeded overtime, but they are under threat of being fired. “There was a girl who trying to refuse [exceeded] overtime.  She did not succeed and had to work in the factory all night.” Ma Nwet Yin Win said. Ma May Thu from Shwe Pyi Thar Industrial Zone said “If workers refuses to work overtime due to illness, they will have been told not to come back again next days” having said that you are allowed and that mean you have already been dismissed. Nevertheless, in a context where normal wages are inadequate, overtime is the only option to help the workers and their families.

Sometimes, the overtime shifts run late and workers return to their hostels around 10:00 PM in some factories, and in others, even at 12:00 AM. Normally, most factories from the industrial zones in Yangon work overtime till 8PM or 8:30 PM, but “this time is still convenient to go back” Ma Hla Yi Yi San said. However, a late night without the ferry can mean a dangerous commute home in the dimly-lit streets of Yangon’s industrial zones. “On the way home, we need to walk about ten to fifteen minutes from the factory. [It is common to have] boys mocking our sisters with bad manner on the way [such as catcalling, groping]” she added. Even though women workers have requested a ferry for workers, factory management continues to ignore their requests.

High productivity is a buzzword around these factories and the investment-led development narrative. Workers are always being forced to reach the targeted outputs by supervisors who resort to verbal abuse. Forced overtime, refusing legally-granted leave, dismissal of pregnant women, and refusal of medical leave and other rights of workers are some of the ways that factory management uses to ‘incentivize’ high productivity.

According to the Leave and Holiday Act, one worker can get 10 days of paid annual leave, 6 days of casual leave and 30 days of medical leave per year. Leave and holidays are granted by law, but often out of reach for many factory workers. “There was no paid leave in our factory so we don’t ask HR for the leave anymore. They are always ready to give unpaid leave even though workers have the right to paid leave, and [do not] inform them of paid leave days. So, we don’t ask them for their permission, because there is no difference. But we have also been rebuked for not asking permission for leave,” Ma Cho Wai Nwe Tun from Hlaing Thar Yar Industrial Zone said.[15] In general, for a specific reason to get leave or a gate-pass (to go outside) a factory, the worker needs two signatures; one from a technician and one from the factory manager with the approval of supervisor. This process is difficult; especially for any leave related to personal reasons, or union-related issues. “If we unionists ask for leave, the factory manager tell us to request the leave from the technician, while the technician tells us to request the leave from factory manager. When we finally relented, they would say we are given an unpaid leave of absence,” Ma Hla Yi Yi San stated.[16] The factory management team intentionally avoids signing leave for unionists. Workers answered that getting leave, even legally, is tough in their factory, though this is normal. Ma Hla Yi Yi San adds, “The Chinese technician asked, why do you need to take leave? Sick? But you seem good. I think you don’t need to take a leave”. Therefore, women workers would continue working despite having menstrual cramps. Ma Nwet Yin Win added that there was a worker who lost her job due to two-day leave.

Overtime can be good for workers, employers, and the GDP, so long as it is administered fairly and does not become a substitute for a decent living wage. Overtime is an important topic to be addressed in the context of wage insufficiency. There is an opportunity here to promote responsible business practices in general. The rules and regulations for such issues often exist, but political parties must make them matter. They must be talked about the enforcement of existing laws related to labour. And now is the perfect time as this would improve workers’ hope and enthusiasm about the upcoming election.

Motherhood inside the Factory

During Covid-19, over 500,000 garment workers lost their jobs, while women above 25 years old were not able to get jobs due to surplus labour. Because factories want young, single women, women above 25 are being tagged as old and unproductive workforce.[17] “If you are 26 years old, you cannot get a job at a garment factory, or most other factories for that matter. Even though we, the workers, have invested our efforts and youth in the factory for many years, you cannot get the job even if you are experienced,” Ma Nwet Yin Win answered. Even if the worker is 25 years old, she still needs to have two years’ experience in the garment sector to get a job. Workers themselves don’t understand why women under 25 years have an advantage in garment factory jobs. Garment factories are searching for young, unmarried women workers, the most productive form of labour which can give them the surplus value certainly.

In contrast, married women workers have to agree upon applying for a job that they will not have a child within a year starting from the time of work. Employment contracts even stipulate that workers have to agree to voluntary resignation without compensation at the commencement of their pregnancy. If the worker does not agree to that clause, it is almost guaranteed that she will not get the job.[18] Motherhood in the workplace is very difficult due to the silence of laws against discrimination. Since 2018, women workers had already reported that there are routine pregnancy tests inside the factory, and that employers have refused to pay workers’  the 14 weeks of maternity leave they are entitled to. “At the start of the pregnancy, women workers are forced to voluntarily resign from her work. Pregnant women never get their legal entitlements”, one worker from Dagon Seikkan Industrial Zone confirmed. HR managers in factories do not want to support the leave for pregnant woman, too, and sometimes, pregnant women are forced to resign. Some workers are fired due to their pregnancies.[19]

There are still some factories where pregnant women are working despite it being harmful workplaces. One worker from Shwe Pyi Thar Industrial Zone answered: “At present, pregnant women are in trouble. They need to work in the same condition as other workers, without any accommodations for her condition. For instance, standing all day or walking one place to another place of the sewing section”. Some workers are afraid of the factory management finding out about their pregnancy. Acting like non-pregnant, single young women, they are forced to work in unsafe workplaces, sometimes with bad ventilation or when required to lift heavy loads. How the law works to protect the pregnant women is the most important question for government and employers. Despite the fact that there might be a number of HR manager who are good and ready to help pregnant women[20], there continues to be a strong preference for single, young women in the factories.

It is the duty of the government to ensure that the legal rights of pregnant women are respected in the workplace. As a political candidate trying to gain support, and as a human being cognizant of the importance of safety and adequate protection for pregnancies, taking a strong stance on supporting women workers who are also mothers is precisely the kind of issue that would resonate with so many people in society. This begins with abolishing the idea that women workers who are mothers or expecting mothers are a burden in the workforce. The narrative needs to be flipped to embrace working women in the factory and a way of humanizing their workplace condition. In this same sense, this issue could be useful for humanizing candidates and entire political parties.

Legal Protection?

When studying disputes tied to factories in Yangon, it becomes apparent that the legal framework serves to protect employers’ rights and property, but not workers. Workers struggle to enjoy their basic legal rights. In order to “protect” workers in labour dispute cases, Myanmar enacted labour laws and announced that employment contracts are required for every employee, under the Employment and Skill Development Law 2013. In fact, Myanmar has about twenty laws, rules and notifications regarding the protection of labour rights. But it seems that these laws are not applied in many factories. In reality, the majority of workers still do not have copy of their contract, and do not know the clauses of the contract. Some employers manipulate contracts and use them to intimidate workers by implanting terms that disallow gathering of over 4 or 5 people, preventing people from talking about their work outside the factory, and clauses stating that they have to acquiesce to their leaders/ supervisors’ orders without complaint.

The Prevention of Violence Against Women Law is in the draft stage and it has only one provision relating to women workers. The employers are accountable for ensuring a safe environment for women workers.[21] According to the discussion above, however, employers do not take full responsibility of protection the rights of women workers. As a result, labour unions are the only agent of protection and change for workers, especially women workers. “Factory management signed an agreement with factory union to stop the verbal abuse of supervisors inside factory [from Pathein]” said Ma Kha Kha (LHEO). If there is a strong union, more workers will know their basic rights, and how to defend such rights. Unions can educate workers on their employment contract, and ensure that the contracts are not framed at the expense of workers’ rights. Employment contracts can––and should be––a vehicle to protect workers. For example, LHEO is trying to add the protection of workers against sexual harassment in workplace as an appendix of Employment Contract. At present, the employment contract is the only option to protect the rights of workers formally on paper.

Employment contracts are an example of something very concrete that campaigns can focus on. These contracts explain in real-world terms how a candidate or political party would use existing laws and regulations to hold industries and businesses accountable, protect women and all workers, and promote sustainable development in Myanmar. Women workers are not asking political parties to put forth a revolutionary new agenda; they are merely asking that candidates and parties acknowledge their plight, enforce existing laws and regulations, and present feasible plans or to improve the livelihoods, lifestyles, and the daily experience of women workers in Myanmar.

Conclusion

The 2020 election could be a moment of change for women workers, but only if prevailing political parties see their plight and the opportunity at hand. Political parties need a precise plan to secure the well-being of workers and their families, which includes an increase in the minimum wage, an effective social security system with adequate coverage, and strong legal enforcement in every workplace for women workers and workers’ rights. Workplace harassment and discrimination deserves particular attention. There should be a confidential complaint mechanism for women workers at the factory level, and more trainings for women, especially those in the supervisory role. Women workers need to know what qualifies or constitutes sexual harassment. They need to know their rights under labor laws and rights as human beings. In the case of pregnant women, organized opportunities to educate them on their basic rights will allow them to bargain with employers on an equal playing field, and avoid unlawful targeting. Adding more provisions for women workers in the Prevention of Violence Against Women Law could be a game changer. Freedom of association must be granted not only by laws, but in practice within factories. Factory labour organizations are crucial agents to address the plight of women workers on the ground in real time. If political parties want the votes of women workers, they have an opportunity to win their votes by making room for their voices in the lead up to the election.

(Featured image courtesy of Hongsar)

Ye Yint Khant Maung is a researcher, and Seik Nyan is an assistant program manager, with Urbanize: Policy Institute for Urban and Regional Planning. They wish to thank Matthew Mullen at Article 30 and Mael Raynaud at Urbanize for their support in developing this article.

Notes

[1] Interview with Ma Nwet Yin Win on 2 August 2020.

[2] Interview with Ma Ei Thanda Aye on 25 July 2020.

[3] Interview with Ma Nwet Yin Win on 2 August 2020

[4] Weaving Gender: Challenges and Opportunities for the Myanmar Garment Industries, ILO, 2019, page 41

[5] Interview with three workers from Shwe Pyi Thar Industrial zone on 26 July 2020, Focus Group Discussion with four workers from Dagon Seikkan Industrial Zone on 25 July 2020.

[6] Focus Group Discussion with four workers from Dagon Seikkan Industrial zone on 25 July 2020.

[7] Focus Group Discussion with four workers from Dagon Seikkan Industrial zone on 25 July 2020.

[8] Focus Group Discussion with four workers from Dagon Seikkan Industrial zone on 25 July 2020.

[9] Focus Group Discussion with four workers from Dagon Seikkan Industrial zone on 25 July 2020.

[10] Focus Group Discussion with four workers from Dagon Seikkan Industrial zone on 25 July 2020, Interview with one worker from Shwe Pyi Thar industrial zone on 26 July 2020.

[11] Interview with Ma Kha Kha on 29 July 2020.

[12] Interview with two workers from Shwe Pyi Thar industrial zone on 26 July 2020.

[13] Interview with Ma Ei Thanda Aye on 25 July 2020.

[14] Focus Group Discussion with four workers from Dagon Seikkan Industrial zone on 25 July 2020.

[15] Interview with Ma Cho Wai Nwae Tun on 2 August 2020.

[16] Interview with Ma Hla Yi Yi San on 26 July 2020.

[17] Interview with Ma Nwet Yin Win on 2 August 2020

[18] Interview with Ma Nwet Yin Win on 2 August 2020

[19] Interview with two workers from Shwe Pyi Thar Industrial Zones on 26 July 2020

[20] Weaving Gender: Challenges and Opportunities for the Myanmar Garment Industries, ILO, 2019, page 54

[21] Article 18 of the draft bill of the Prevention of Violence Against Women.