DESPITE RECENT international reports which accused some garment factories in Myanmar of labour abuses, top executives of Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association said last week that the industry did not accept the use of child labour, in line with the standards of International Labour Organisation.
Some international media outlets published reports on the booming industry, based on the findings of a report, entitled “The Myanmar Dilemma” published by Netherlands-based Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO).
The report revealed that top brands including H&M, Lonsdale and Pierre Cardin have been sourcing from factories employing children as young as 14.
MGMA chairman Myint Soe said that the report contains multiple misunderstandings of Myanmar law. He explained that employing 14 year-old staff in a non-hazardous industry is legal but they can only work a maximum of four hours per day, according to the existing laws.
“Here in Myanmar, those between 14 to 16 years of age are not regarded as children. They are youths who are eligible to work with limited working hours. The vast majority of our workforce are older than 16 years of age, which is a legal working age for all industries,” he said.
“But they need a medical check-up and a doctor’s recommendation certificate that they are fit for work. Both employer and employee need to keep such certificate to avoid disputes in the future. ”
The association has stated in its code of business conduct that member companies should not employ workers below the age of 15. To date, MGMA has more than 400 members, and usually welcomes an average of 60 factories as new members on a yearly basis.
Myint Soe said that Myanmar garment factories are really “suspicious” about the intention of SOMO-funded report, as it is misleading, lacks context, and relies on anecdotal information.
Khine Khine Nwe, secretary-general of MGMA and joint secretary-general of Union of Myanmar Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that such activist publications usually make seemingly purposeful distortions, in order to present a distorted picture of reality.
She said that child labour is not a simple problem in a “least-developed” country such as Myanmar. Due to limited job opportunities in the nation, some child workers sometimes bring forged identification when applying for garment sector jobs, knowing that these businesses tend not to hire people under 18.
To address this, some factories have started taking photographs of workers with their ID cards when they apply so that they have a record, she added.
She also denied the recent misleading reports about the use of child labour in garment factories sewing for international brands. She said it is impossible for sourcing factories that are linked to top brands to use child labour, as they have to follow very strict disciplines. She believes that all workers at those factories are over 18.
“Top brands usually order only when the compliance of the factories is satisfactory. Normally, they check their suppliers’ compliance on a yearly basis or once in two years. For example, even though a factory passes their compliance test this year, it does not guarantee that they can do it again next year,” she said.
“It is truly a choice of do or die. If you employ even a child, then you cannot expect any order from top brands, as it is a very sensitive issue globally. So if you are a factory owner, what would you choose?” she asked.
Khine Khine Nwe said that top brands anxiously immediately contacted their suppliers, soon after Britain’s The Guardian newspaper published a misleading report on Myanmar’s garment sector based on SOMO-funded report.
“Some of the top brands mentioned in the report immediately came here soon after they read the news. But when they undertook a ground observation at the factories which were accused of using child labour, they realised that the report was totally wrong,” she said.
She also denied accusations of workers being paid below the minimum wage of Ks3,600 (Bt92) per day.
“In Myanmar, some workers are classified as apprentices for the first three months of their jobs. The minimum wage during the apprentice period is half the minimum wage. It probably merits pointing out that the UK wage rate for apprentices is only 47 per cent of the full minimum,” she said.
She said that wages had risen 33 per cent in the last three years even after adjusting for inflation. Yet, she admitted that overtime is often not optional, given a demand driven by buyers.
“But such practice is common in every single country producing clothes, not just in Myanmar,” she said.
Myint Soe also noted that garment is the only industry in Myanmar so far which follows the nation’s Minimum Wage Law approved during the former Thein Sein government term.