Haymarn Soe Nyunt and Pai Cheimt Khaung delve into the unseen hardships of Myanmar’s garment workers with a focus on Kingsrich Garment Factory.
Authors’ note: To ensure the confidentiality of the sources, we have used pseudonyms in this article.
In the aftermath of the coup d’état, the workers were at the forefront of the resistance against the military takeover. The pivotal role played by the garment workers, who took to the streets on February 6th, 2021, cannot be overstated; it was a spark that ignited the Spring Revolution. Consequently, Hlaingtharyar Township, a workplace for garment workers and a major factory hub in the country was cracked down by the Myanmar military, and more than 40 people were killed on March 14, 2021. Today, more than two years after the coup, the workers are still actively participating in the revolution under the threats of arrests and military rule. However, they are grappling with numerous challenges, including skyrocketing prices, a devalued currency, and stagnant wages. In addition to the oppressive military dictatorship, workers are also facing exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous businesses. This article is intended to shed light on the daily difficulties and oppressions workers face but often do not receive sufficient attention. For this purpose, Kingsrich (Myanmar) Garment Factory is cited as a case study although it’s important to note that such dire situations for workers are not limited to this factory alone.
Myanmar’s garment industry, which employs mostly young female migrants and contributed to 28% of the country’s exports in 2019, has faced many challenges such as COVID-19, the military coup, and the sanctions that followed. Some foreign companies have shifted their orders to other countries, while others still operate in Myanmar despite the risks of oppression and exploitation. Kingsrich (Myanmar) Fashion Limited, a subsidiary garment factory of China’s Wuhan Kingsrich Fashion Group, made its entry into Myanmar in 2016. The Chinese fashion conglomerate, known for its production of fast fashion, operates in China, Myanmar, and Cambodia. The Kingsrich (Myanmar) factory is situated in the Shwe Pyi Thar Township of Yangon. This factory primarily focuses on manufacturing outdoor sportswear/lightweight series fabrics, and employs approximately 3,000 workers with a majority of young women who have migrated from the Irrawaddy region to Yangon. The imposition of unreasonable standard hourly outputs on workers, coupled with the practice of unpaid overtime work and the imposition of fines for failing to meet such standards, constitutes a blatant violation of labor laws and amounts to forced labor in practice. Garment factories in Myanmar have persisted in committing these unlawful practices, treating them as entrenched traditions that continue to this day. The Covid-19 pandemic has had its impact on the Kingsrich (Myanmar) factory as well, with temporary factory shutdowns. However, during that period, workers reported not receiving wages or any form of support. Furthermore, reports have emerged of workers facing pressure to refrain from participating in silent strikes against the military junta, as well as experiencing labor exploitation, forced labor, and illegal dismissals at the Kingsrich (Myanmar) Garment Factory. There is also a report that the factory either called or threatened to call the police and the military to arrest workers if they voiced their concerns related to their workplace situations. Despite these labor rights violations, the Kingsrich Myanmar garment factory continues to operate without any repercussions, and in 2022, it exported and sold more than 40,000 garments abroad.
The factory’s relentless regular increase of hourly production targets puts immense pressure on workers, akin to forced labor. For instance, if workers are expected to finish 500 pieces of fabric in a day, the target may be increased to 600 pieces the next day, and so on. Both employers and employees must mutually agree upon the standard hourly production targets. However, workers are often fearful of refusing unreasonable demands from employers due to the risk of being fired, which emboldens employers to suppress their rights. Furthermore, when workers fail to meet these extortionate production targets, they are often subjected to fines. Additionally, workers who do not meet the production targets are often coerced into working overtime without receiving any compensation, under the pretext of completing their pending work. As one worker, Ma Loon Tin stated,
Even when workers meet the production targets, the overtime pay they receive is often lower than the legally mandated amount. While the legally mandated amount of overtime pay is 1,200 MMK (USD$0.39) per hour, workers actually receive only 600 MMK (USD$0.19) per hour. Moreover, employers often classify some workers as temporary or daily laborers instead of permanent employees, thereby exploiting them in different ways. For daily laborers, overtime pay is often reduced below the rates set by law. The law stipulates that workers, whether permanent or daily laborers are entitled to twice their regular hourly wage for overtime work. However, employers often fail to comply with this requirement. As daily laborers can be terminated by the factory at any time at the employer’s discretion, they often hesitate to voice their grievances about the injustice they face. This explains why factories prefer to hire day laborers and terminate contract workers who do not comply with their demands.
The working conditions at the Kingsrich (Myanmar) garment factory are far from satisfactory. The drinking water provided to the workers is connected to a tap used in the toilet, without any water purification system in place. Moreover, the toilets are filthy and emit unpleasant odors. Workers who are stationed near the toilets are forced to inhale these noxious fumes throughout their workday. In addition, the workers lack health insurance and have to endure long hours of labor in sweltering summer heat with no respite. One of the workers, Ma Loon Tin shared her experience:
Although employers and managers enjoy comfortable working conditions complete with air-conditioning, they turn a blind eye to the workers being deprived of basic hygiene measures in the workplace.
Another critical aspect of workers’ welfare is access to healthcare. Factories are required to provide healthcare to their workers, including well-equipped medical clinics on-site. However, many factories merely feign compliance with these requirements for appearances’ sake, and the Kingsrich (Myanmar) Garment Factory is no exception.
“There’s a nurse at the factory clinic. If you’re sick, they only check your blood pressure. There’s no medicine available except for packets of electrolyte beverage powder. Sometimes even that is unavailable,” revealed Ma Hnin, a former worker at the factory.
This means that workers have no recourse in case of injury or illness during work hours. Ko Lwin Aye, a day laborer at the Kingsrich (Myanmar) Garment Factory, experienced a hand injury while on duty. However, the factory clinic could not provide appropriate treatment, and Ko Lwin Aye was not allowed to take time off to recover. Fearing termination, Ko Lwin Aye had to continue working despite the severe hand injury. Ma Hnin, another former worker at the Kingsrich (Myanmar) Garment Factory, fainted due to illness while working but did not receive any medication from the factory clinic. Rather than meeting the basic workplace needs of workers, these factories continue to focus solely on maximizing production output. These instances highlight that the Kingsrich (Myanmar) Garment Factory fails to provide adequate working conditions, hygiene measures, and healthcare to its workers, in violation of legal requirements. Moreover, when the Department of Labor conducts inspections, the factories are often forewarned, rendering the inspections ineffective in practice. Consequently, workers continue to endure dire working conditions and struggle to make ends meet.
Kingsrich (Myanmar) Garment Factory has a record of conducting other unethical practices such as arbitrary dismissals and not paying full overtime (OT) wages. In September 2022, Myanmar Labour News reported an incident where a worker was unfairly dismissed because her creditor contacted the factory to inquire about the loan she had taken. Her dismissal was attributed to defamation of the factory’s image, despite the fact that the worker had done nothing wrong except facing financial difficulties. Such arbitrary dismissals are not uncommon at Kingsrich (Myanmar) Garment Factory. In August 2023, another female worker was dismissed after being assaulted by a colleague within the same factory. When she reported the incident and sought justice, she was unjustly dismissed instead of receiving protection from the factory. A similar harrowing situation is evident in the case of Ma Hnin. The fact that Ma Hnin has been with the Kingsrich (Myanmar) Garment Factory for over two years since the age of 18 appears to hold no significance for the employers. Prior to working at Kingsrich (Myanmar), Ma Hnin enjoyed good health and long hair. However, the relentless pressure to meet hourly production targets, daily episodes of shouting and cursing, and mounting financial responsibilities to support her family took a toll on her physical and mental health. The chronic lack of sleep resulted in her physical health deteriorating and she even fainted while working at the factory. Despite her grave situation, Ma Hnin was denied leave when she requested it and was ultimately terminated from the factory. Her family’s financial stability was dependent on Ma Hnin’s income. Therefore, her termination from the factory only compounded their financial woes.
“I lost my job and I’m struggling. Now my younger sister had to drop out of school and work. She earns a meager 3,600 kyats a day as a day laborer, and she’s only 16 years old.” Ma Hnin shared that her 16-year-old sister had to abandon her education and work as a day laborer to support the family after her own termination. “I don’t get a salary anymore, so I can’t afford to pay the rent. I had to sell my hair to make ends meet,” Ma Hnin lamented. Moreover, she had to take out loans at exorbitant interest rates of 20% to cover medical expenses and the increasing house debts. The unlawful treatment and illegal dismissal caused her severe trauma and further exacerbated the hardships faced by her and her family.
Despite seeking help from a labor leader and requesting the factory to reconsider, Ma Hnin was met with betrayal and that so-called labor leader advised her to accept whatever the employer offered and “cool off.” In desperation, Ma Hnin reached out to Solidarity Trade Union Myanmar (STUM) for assistance and eventually received some compensation with their intervention. However, the received compensation was not enough to address her health issues or alleviate the financial burdens faced by her family. It is disheartening to note that such cases of illegal dismissal and its repercussions are not isolated incidents, but rather a common occurrence.
In 2015, labor unions in Myanmar demanded an increase in the minimum wage, which the government set at 3,600 MMK (USD$1.14) per day for 8 hours of work. In 2018, it was increased to 4,800 MMK (USD$1.52), but further adjustments were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2021 coup, and labor activists now call for a minimum wage above three dollars (9,300 MMK). The current minimum wage of 4,800 kyats (USD$1.55) means that workers can barely cover their basic needs to survive. Many workers are forced to take loans at high interest rates of 20 percent because their salaries are not enough to make ends meet. “It is not enough. When I receive my salary, I have to pay rent and debt, and after that, only 50,000 MMK (USD$16.12) is left,” said Ma Loon Tin about her income and expenses. Ma Loon Tin, a 29-year-old worker who moved from Irrawaddy to Yangon, works as a day laborer at the Kingsrich (Myanmar) factory and continues to work as a wage laborer. Despite being unhappy with her work, she feels compelled to continue working to make a living. She said, “I’m not happy but I have to work for a living.” She candidly shared her daily experiences at work. It was revealed that Ma Loon Tin wishes to work in her hometown instead of her current job. “I just want to start my own business. For example, if I have my own farm, I will certainly work there. That way, I will not be separated from my family and home,” Ma Loon Tin expressed her expectations. Her younger sister, who left the Kingsrich (Myanmar) factory a year ago, also wants to start her own business by sewing clothes with her own sewing machine at home. The main reason behind the sisters’ decision to relocate from their hometown in Ayeyarwady Region to Yangon is clear. “In our hometown, there were only seasonal jobs. However, Yangon offered year-round employment opportunities, so we came here to support our families better,” the sisters explained. They expressed their desire that if there were job opportunities in their hometown, they would prefer to work there. Their experience also reflects the situation of imbalanced development across Myanmar, where urban centers like Yangon and Mandalay have a lot of job opportunities while other places have very few. This phenomenon leads to many internal migrations as we see in this case.
Having worked in Yangon for 15 years, Ma Loon Tin works standing up from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. every day, with only short breaks for meals. “There is a lot of time spent standing. I have time to sit for only half an hour while eating and after work at home,” said Ma Loon Tin. After 4:30 p.m., overtime work begins. When she worked in the packaging department, there were overtime hours every Sunday, and she did not get a day off. Last March, she received around 230,000 kyats (USD$74.19) as wages. In order to get to work every day, she starts getting ready at around 6:30 in the morning, and she can only return home at around 10:30 at night to rest. Ma Loon Tin can only work at the Kingsrich (Myanmar) factory and cannot pursue other income-generating opportunities or hobbies due to the time-consuming nature of her job. She has also experienced work-related injuries, such as getting her hand cut by an elevator door, and did not receive health care from the factory. After working as a garment worker for more than a decade, she is also suffering from stomach disease.
Ma Loon Tin and her sister have been diligently saving up in hopes of purchasing their own farm, enabling them to work independently. However, their efforts have been futile thus far, as their salaries merely cover their day-to-day expenses. The meager wages provided by their employers barely suffice for basic sustenance, leaving most workers unable to save. In August 2022, the Myanmar Pou Chen Factory Workers’ Union voiced their demand for an increase in the minimum wage from 4,800 kyats (USD$1.54) to 8,000 kyats (USD$2.58). The Solidarity Trade Union Myanmar (STUM) also expressed their stance on May Day of 2022, advocating for the minimum wage to be set at 10,000 kyats (USD$3.22) per day. Despite these calls for fair compensation, the Myanmar junta has once again threatened to reduce the minimum wage, causing distress among workers. “This can only happen because the junta has given a signal. The employers are testing the waters, gauging the workers’ response like a blood pressure test. If the workers remain silent, it is likely to be implemented,” answered an official from the Solidarity Trade Union Myanmar (STUM) in an interview with Myanmar Labor News. Burmese workers find themselves trapped in a dire situation, struggling to obtain decent wages and uphold their rights amidst oppressive working conditions. Exploitation in the workplace persists, and workers face ongoing challenges in their pursuit of fair treatment.
Over two years after the military coup in Myanmar, the country continues to grapple with economic challenges, including job shortages, soaring commodity prices, and medicine shortages. Coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the economic crisis has left many struggling to make ends meet as their income and expenses are no longer in balance. Since the coup, the prices of goods have skyrocketed. This economic turmoil has resulted in approximately 40 percent (22 million) of the country’s population falling below the poverty line by 2022. As a result, many households are cutting back on both food and non-food items to cope with significantly lower incomes. The military coup has also dealt a severe blow to the country’s poverty reduction programs, which were already struggling for a decade prior. The remedial loan programs implemented by the NLD government and the Burmese military after the coup have primarily catered to entrepreneurs and investors, leaving the majority of workers behind. Although there are some relief measures for ordinary citizens such as exemption from electricity tariffs for all households, many of the relief programs of the NLD government were targeted toward the businesses. Burmese workers, particularly those in the garment industry, have faced livelihood difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic, and unfair dismissals have pushed many into debt. For example, Ma Hnin, who was unfairly fired by the Kingsrich (Myanmar) Garment Factory due to her health condition. Although the dismissal was resolved according to the law, she remained unemployed for over four months and received a meager compensation of 700,000 MMK ($USD225.8) from the factory. Prior to her dismissal, Ma Hnin earned a monthly salary of around 250,000 kyats (USD$80.64), and her current unemployment has left her facing financial struggles for her health problems and her family’s livelihood.
Similarly, 26-year-old Ma Mya Lay from Irrawaddy Region, who also worked at the Kingsrich (Myanmar) Garment Factory, quit her job due to exploitative and abusive treatments in the factory. She explained the reasons behind quitting her job, “The factory exploits workers and supervisors frequently use abusive language towards workers. The hourly production targets were set unrealistically high, beyond our capabilities. When we raised complaints, we faced further repression. It became unbearable, so I decided to leave.” Before leaving her job, Ma Mya Lay earned around 200,000 MMK (USD$64.51) per month, which she used to support her family back home. However, her decision to quit has left her unable to provide for her family and has forced her to borrow money to meet her daily needs.
Most workers in the garment industry in Myanmar face difficult working conditions and have little time to prioritize their health and well-being. Many rely on easily accessible, ready-made food for convenience. Ma Loon Tin, who is employed at a garment factory in Kingsrich (Myanmar), has been unable to visit her parents’ home for over two years. She shared, “Instead, I sent 100,000 kyats (USD$32.25), which would cover the cost of the trip, to my family.” She expressed how she longs to return home, especially when her mother or grandmother falls ill. She narrated, “My mother informed me that my grandmother’s health is deteriorating and asked if I could visit once a year. During such moments, I feel the urge to go home.” Despite the challenges of moving away from her hometown to work in Yangon, Ma Loon Tin often wishes to reunite with her family.
In the workplace, when problems arise, the Workplace Coordination Committee (WCC) is supposed to facilitate dialogue between employers and workers in order to address the issues collectively. However, in many factories, including Kingsrich (Myanmar), the WCC has become a mere tool of the employers. Instead of selecting representatives who will genuinely advocate for the interests of the workers, the factory chooses individuals who are aligned with the employer’s agenda. In the Kingsrich (Myanmar) Garment factory, the WCC operates as an oppressive mechanism of the employer rather than a means of resolving workers’ problems. When workers are unjustly terminated, the WCC fails to address the issue in accordance with the law. Similarly, concerns about unhealthy drinking water and unsanitary toilets in the workplace at Kingsrich (Myanmar) Garment Factory remain unaddressed by the WCC. “In some factories, the WCC itself has fired workers. They are not supposed to have that authority. The WCC needs to understand its role. The original idea was to establish the WCC for two-way discussions in the factory. But the reality is different; only one-sided discussions are taking place,” stated a labor activist from STUM.
As individual workers, it is practically impossible to express grievances and criticize injustices in the factory, as employers are quick to terminate workers for various reasons. Only through the collective strength of workers’ organizations and the existence of labor unions can they effectively address violations of their rights in the workplace. However, there are reports of employers who understand the importance and power of labor unions, covertly planning to establish “yellow unions” consisting of individuals who will comply with their wishes. Having a nominal yellow union in a factory is even worse than having no union at all, as it enables employers to manipulate and control the situation to their advantage. In the case of Ma Hnin, she was also betrayed by a so-called labor activist.
When workers seek recourse for labor rights violations at the Labor Office, the process is often time-consuming and expensive, leaving them feeling exhausted and disillusioned, as was the case with Ma Hnin. The bureaucratic handover between departments and the costs associated with travel and legal fees can be prohibitive. In many instances, justice remains elusive through these institutional channels. These conditions allow employers to continue exploiting workers, while also benefiting from the formation of WCCs and the establishment of yellow unions, as they actively collaborate to maximize their own interests. The only effective solution to counter these exploitative practices and protect the rights of workers is through the formation of genuine labor unions based on workers’ unity.
Labor unions play a critical role in defending the rights of workers who face violations in the workplace. While individual workers may be easily ignored by employers, labor unions, as the collective organizing force of workers, cannot be easily dismissed. Just as a single stick of wood can be broken, a collection of wood sticks bound together is much stronger. This is why labor unions are vital in factories. However, it is crucial to ensure that labor unions are not mere “yellow unions,” which collaborate with employers and act against the interests of workers. The true strength of a labor union becomes evident during strikes when their power to disrupt workflow can bring attention to unfair labor rights violations. Through such actions, labor unions have historically fought against exploitation and injustice in the workplace.
During the last government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), labor leaders who led the protests faced prosecution by the government. Workers also experienced the use of force to break strikes, along with arrest warrants. Labor union leaders are not spared from threats, including physical violence and arrest by the military regime as well as persuasion through positions and money offered by employers. A member of STUM reported, “At this time, there are threats with thugs, with the army, and with the police. In one of the factories, a thug came from outside and tried to stab the union leader with a knife. He was hired by the factory.” Despite such challenges, having a labor union that truly represents the workers in a factory serves as a source of strength for the workers. The lack of a labor union in the Kingsrich (Myanmar) garment factory is concerning.
According to the Labor Law, labor organizations can be formed with the participation of 30 workers, and for such formation to take place, at least 10 percent of the workers in the respective factory must support it. It’s worth noting that the law uses the term “labor organization” instead of “labor union”. Employers are mandated to recognize labor organizations in their businesses as representatives of workers, and are prohibited from taking actions to establish or operate labor organizations through financial or other means of influence or control. However, a member of STUM stated, “There is no formal threat to not form a union, but there are various kinds of harassment and prevention to prevent the formation of a union. Gatherings are not possible. They are also firing those who they think will organize a union. So, this is a threat.” Such actions by employers violate the right of workers to form and join labor unions, highlighting the need for greater protection of workers’ rights. With such actions, employers are protecting their interests.
Under the current labor laws, labor organizations must register with the Ministry of Labor, and registration can be refused. The extent to which these labor laws truly reflect the voice of the workforce is questionable. Prior to the seizure of power, some labor organizations underwent registration procedures, while others operated without registration. Registered organizations are engaged by government agencies, including the International Labor Organization (ILO). Nevertheless, even registered unions face government suppression if they strike.
It is imperative for workers to take proactive measures to protect their interests and rights from being violated by forming a labor union. Especially when legal avenues do not yield results, a labor union can be a powerful tool in advocating for workers’ rights. Workers have historically organized themselves into groups or labor unions to collectively demand their rights when violated. We can often see multiple factory unions standing together in solidarity during strikes. Without a labor union, employers may continue to exploit workers with impunity, treating them as mere commodities rather than recognizing their dignity and rights. By organizing and collectively bargaining through a labor union, workers can better safeguard their rights and improve their working conditions, ensuring that their voices are heard and respected in the workplace.
Outside the factories, labor unions also participated in anti-military movements after the military coup in 2021. In response, the military council revoked the registration of these unions and declared them illegal associations. Arrests of labor union leaders and issuance of warrants against them persist. The National Unity Government (NUG), an anti-dictatorship force, has established a Labor Ministry. However, there has been no concrete solution for the challenges faced by workers on the ground. The Ministry of Labor of the NUG has announced that labor unions that do not join the junta can apply for registration with them. Labor unions argue that having to apply for registration to any government undermines the freedom to form labor unions, and the rights of association and activities are fading away.
Currently, due to the political climate, labor unions face limitations in their activities compared to before. Some unions are now resorting to pressuring employers for labor rights violations in coordination with the international brands that order the products from the respective factories. Despite brands’ promises to protect labor rights, they often fail to implement these commitments in practice. As a result, labor unions have to rely on media and public pressure to hold employers and brands accountable.
“There is no union under military rule.” This is what a Myanmar military officer told factory workers demanding an increase in their wages in Shwe Pyi Thar Township. After the military coup in 2021, labor unions were declared outlawed, but labor strikes demanding workers’ rights persist due to the widespread labor rights violations and suppressions in the workplace. On one hand, the Myanmar junta arrests and murders labor unionists and labor activists; on the other hand, they collaborate with businesses and oppress workers who are already in dire workplace situations. Garment workers in Yangon, part of working-class communities, were grappling with pre-existing challenges before the pandemic and the coup, including earning below the minimum wage and facing frequent labor rights violations. Ma Myo Aye from STUM remarked, “In the past, they (the employers) called in gangsters. Now, they (the employers) call those who have official licenses for violence (the military),” describing how employers handle problems within the factories.
It is evident that some employers are colluding with the mechanisms of the military dictatorship, exploiting and profiting from the labor of workers. The unholy alliance between employers and the dictators hinders the realization of workers’ rights. Even if the military dictatorship is eventually overthrown, there remains a looming danger that the next government and business enterprises will continue to exploit workers, as seen in past governments. Employers’ sole concern is safeguarding their profits, and it is only through the collective power of workers that their exploitative practices can be effectively challenged.
The public also plays a crucial role in holding employers accountable. By boycotting brands that violate labor rights and are manufactured in factories known for mistreatment of workers, the public can pressure employers to prioritize workers’ rights over profits. The actions of Kingsrich (Myanmar) Garment Factory, which continue to violate workers’ rights with impunity , exemplify that employers only take notice when their interests are at stake. Employers have yet to be impacted financially, and as a result, they are callously treating workers as modern-day slaves in appalling working conditions without any regard for their well-being. Employers will only truly prioritize workers’ rights when their bottom line is affected. The need for urgent and sustained efforts to protect workers’ rights and hold employers accountable cannot be overstated in the current crisis faced by workers during the revolution.
Haymarn Soe Nyunt is a student unionist and a researcher who examines the impacts of Myanmar’s recent coup d’etat on Burmese migrants and how the student and worker movements have contributed to Myanmar’s Spring Revolution.
Pai Cheimt Khaung is a student unionist and researcher, exploring the dynamics of social movements in Myanmar, with a particular focus on the distinctive contributions of student and labor movements alongside other factors within the broader context of Myanmar’s Spring Revolution.