Myanmar's garment industry seeks out responsible business practices as a pathway to competitive industry growth.
The Rana Plaza factory collapse was a tragedy for Bangladesh, but those crashing walls and the sacrifice of more than 2,000 workers’ lives were also a wake-up siren for Myanmar. In 2013, Western brands and retailers had only just started to renew sourcing in Myanmar, following the sanctions years. After the Rana Plaza accident, all the largest volume buyers began to ask more questions about building and fire safety. Several European brands set in place sourcing criteria for Myanmar which are even more stringent than what they follow in China, Bangladesh, Cambodia or Vietnam.
With the collapse of Rana Plaza, Myanmar has become not just Asia’s last great hope for cost-competitive sourcing, but Asia’s last chance to “get it right” by developing an ethical and responsible garment industry. Still, there is a difference between the imagination how fast someone is able to run and the reality how fast the one can act-
ually run. Myanmar is starting this race with a severe handicap. The country was uniquely isolated by sanctions.
In 2003, Myanmar and Vietnam had comparable garment industries in terms of size and capacity, but after a decade cut away from Western buyers – our factories had survived by producing high quality structured garments for Japanese buyers – after so much time out of touch with current trends and demands, how would we catch up?
The Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA) took action. We entered into a partnership with the European Union’s SMART Myanmar project. This initia-
tive was perfectly primed to engage Myanmar factories on occupational health and safety issues following the Rana Plaza tragedy. With them, we have investigated building safety – which is a concern in Myanmar, but the challenges of structural safety in Yangon is not nearly as big as I believe they experience in Dhaka or Chitta-
gong. In Myanmar, it is a legal requirement that buildings are not allowed to construct in the country without approval from Local City Development Committee, Engi-
neering Department (Buildings).
Since 2012, highlighting the safety of the physical structure, Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC), the body which approves and issues investment permission, seeks advice and comments from Myanmar Engineering Society for every investment proposal, to make sure that the utilization of the proper construction materials which are compatible with the type of business and the safety net of the physical structure. (In Yangon, steel frame buildings are common, unlike multi-level structures common in Bangladesh.)
In Myanmar, fire safety is among our biggest dangers. A 2013-2015 survey on Myanmar garment industry revealed that exporting has large positive impacts on working conditions in terms of improved fire safety, health-care, union recognition and wages. Even then, in countries with underdevel oped electric infrastructure like Myanmar, unstable electricity sometimes may cause factory fires. In the garment sector where workers come and go on a monthly basis, it is important to practice fire drills and to post visible and readily understandable evacuation maps.
As such, the MGMA has organized educational seminars on factory fire safety, as well as fully supporting the SMART Myanmar project’s intensive “SMART Social Com-
pliance Academy”, under which garment factories receive six months of workshop and on-site con sulting to improve social compliance issues. Regarding these activi-
ties, the MGMA is an implementing partner of SMART Myanmar. As such, we are jointly involved in hitting targets for industry improvement.
During 2014 and 2015 several dozen factories participated in specialized training programs including such topics as “Factory fire safety seminars” or “Seminars on the ‘restricted substances list’ in apparel industries”. Most of these actions have been designed as ‘training of trainers’ activities to boost local technical capacity, whereby local Myanmar experts have worked side-by-side with international experts from Germany, India, China and the United States. Through these activities, we have deve-
loped and refined our training programs and expanded our targets. The EU’s SWITCH-Asia program has funded a 2nd phase for SMART Myanmar.
Examples for further actions are the aims to intensively train at least 100 factories on social compliance practices and at least 400 garment factory HR managers from at least 200 factories by 2019. Myanmar enacted Workers Organization Law in early 2012, supporting the freedom of association of workers – this is a step further than some Asian countries. We are fortunate to have the International Labour Organization (ILO) supporting us as a willing partner in this arena. More still, the ILO has a dedi-
cated project to remediate and eradicate child labor – the garment industry has been among the most engaged in combating this challenging issue. The MGMA has co-
operated with the ILO to organize seminars on child labor remediation strategies, and we plan further actions in future.
In addition to the garment sector, our country is among the strongest supporters of the United Nations Global Compact. More than 300 companies in Myanmar have already committed to the UN Global Compact and more are joining each week. We use this as an educational and aspirational tool to push our country ahead, as we all seek to establish decent, safe, healthy, and productive workplaces.
Essentially, we understand that our pathway to future industry success lies in establishing a reputation for social and environmental responsibility thatis indestructible. This is why we have willingly engaged with our international partners. The MGMA has developed a cogent strategy to take us there, too. We look to Sri Lanka and the success of its industry in adhering to decent workplace standards alongside their “garments with out guilt” campaign. However, we do not envision a catchy phrase. Ours is simple: “Made in Myanmar”. That’s it. No special marketing. Our industry’s brand will be built on our reputation. We will build up “Made in Myanmar” until it means everything a company would hope its brand can come to mean. Quality. Consistency. Reliability. Safety. Responsibility.
The “Pyoe Pin”, a program by the Department for International Development in UK, aims to strengthen the stakeholder dialogues for plotting out future priorities and visions focused on improving employment standards and market access for garment SMEs. It has assisted the industry in reviewing taxation procedures, and has as-
sisted garment manufacturers and government officials setting up a technical working group on taxation.
One activity of our technical working group was to visit Bangladesh, where our delegation met with business associations and visited several garment factories with an intention to learn both ‘best practices’ and also, unfortunately, ‘bad practices’ – both of which can be found in Bangladesh, just as they can be in Myanmar as well as in other countries.
It is enlightening to compare the two countries. It was clear to our group that the private sector in Bangladesh had encountered several damages to their reputation. And that remediation therapy has been put into many workplaces shortly after the tragic incident. Despite more than 30 years of garment industry growth, we disco-
vered that much of their infrastructure – both physical and legal infrastructure – was shockingly similar to Myanmar. That is a situation the Myanmar industry absolutely aims to avoid with several laws.
The path is clear, the race is on. In many ways, great efforts are needed from our side to catch up to the advanced state, and for our part, Myanmar’s garment industry is vaulting ahead like a well-rested Olympian.