Gender equality and growth

ILO: Women’s empowerment and skills development are critical to ensure sustained growth in Myanmar’s garment sector

Myanmar’s garment workforce is projected to grow to one million workers by 2020, mostly women. A new ILO report assessing gender gaps in the sector underlines the need to address workplace culture in order to achieve decent work for the thousands of women that power the industry and Myanmar’s economic growth.

News | 21 February 2019
YANGON, MYANMAR (ILO News) – Women hold the key to unlocking Myanmar’s current and future growth. The hundreds of thousands of women active in the country’s garment industry are making an essential contribution to the country’s development efforts, according to a new report issued by the ILO in Myanmar, entitled Weaving Gender: Challenges and opportunities for the Myanmar garment industry.

Through its review of gender-related practices in select factories located in the greater Yangon region, the overall prospects of are encouraging. Although some challenges were found, most could be addressed through better social dialogue at the national, sectoral and factory levels.  For example, in spite of a belief that men and women have equal opportunities in the sector, actual opportunities for men to find employment in the industry and for women already working in the sector to learn new skills or seek a promotion are limited.

“We found that human resources managers admit they prefer to employ women. Managers tend to draw on assumptions about innate gender characteristics whereby women are seen as more docile and naturally more capable of completing work tasks that require attention to detail, such as sewing” explains Dean Laplonge, the author of the ILO research. However the range of jobs and tasks where women work are more often at the lower-skilled levels. Given the trend toward automation and the increasing use of artificial intelligence in the global garment industry, women’s future role in the sector may be uncertain. It will be essential to ensure cultural norms do not deter women from accessing future higher-skilled jobs often deemed only suitable for men and provide to women with the skills and knowledge needed to retain their foothold in this important industry.

The report also finds that female employees overwhelmingly state they are feeling safe in their workplaces. In most of the factories, however, some evidence of sexual harassment was found, and in a few factories cases of verbal abuse and physical abuse were reported. These forms of gender-based abuse also affect women while they are travelling to and from work.

The ILO report identified there are, however, significant misunderstandings among all the participants in the assessment about what constitutes sexual harassment, and such confusion is likely to have affected the results and warrant caution against generalized statements. In the context of Myanmar, the distinction between what constitutes “teasing” between workers and what constitutes “sexual harassment” is not always clear. “Even though we can’t ignore the messages shared by the women interviewed in the research, authoritative conclusions are difficult to make about the rates of sexual harassment in the sampled factories,” added Dean Laplonge.

The report finds that factories generally lack formal policies and processes to identify and address effectively the real cases of workplace harassment and abuse if and when they occur. This may open up opportunities for training industry stakeholders – which can be implemented through healthy social dialogue workplace practices. “As there is a clear relationship between creating more inclusive and safe workplaces for workers and overall productivity, developing sound workplace practices is clearly an area where both workers and the employers can find common agreements. Trade unions at factory levels can significantly contribute to creating this positive environment,” stated U Thet Hnin Aung, Secretary General of the Myanmar Industries Crafts and Servicer (MICS).

All the participants in the assessment expressed support for better sexual and reproductive health of female employees. The report does not find evidence of direct discrimination against women who have children and continue to work in a factory. There is however clearly a preference for employing young, single women who do not have children, which is corroborated by a rather high – and troubling -  incidence of women stating that, as part of their recruitment process, they had to agree to a pregnancy test. The report also highlights that albeit unintentionally, this sends a clear message to women (employed or seeking employment in garment factories) that the care of young children should supersede a woman’s need or desire to work. As a consequence, the ILO report recommends increased training on sexual and reproductive health at all levels, and the promotion of successful role models, both men and women, who are working and successfully managing family responsibilities.

The ILO released its report on 31 January 2019, in front of more than 70 industry stakeholders: workers, trade union members and leaders, factory managers, industry representatives, NGOs, gender advocates, brands, United Nations agencies, donors and embassies. The half-day event allowed for sharing of a wide ranging set of views on gender aspects in the industry: inclusive workplaces, career opportunities and sexual and reproductive health.

“Weaving Gender” is the result of many months of meticulous research and stakeholders forums where the preliminary findings of the gender assessment were earlier discussed. The report forms part of the ILO Improving labour relations for decent work and sustainable development in the Myanmar garment industry (ILO-GIP), which receives funding support from the Swedish international development agency (Sida) and H&M. The project aims to reduce poverty and empower women in Myanmar via improvements of labour relations and social dialogue in the industry. It delivers industrial relations training to workers, factory-level actors as well as garment industry trade union and employers’ leaders.

“The garment industry is an important engine for Myanmar’s sustainable development. The industry creates formal employment for almost half a million of people, the overwhelming majority of whom are young women” explained Daw Khine Khine Nwe, the general secretary of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA). “The industry has set the goal for Myanmar to be known increasingly as an ethical sourcing destination for the many local and international investors looking to source or set up production or in the country. Making sure the industry is a welcoming workplace for the thousands of women and men workers is essential.”

“In many ways the quest for women’s economic empowerment will be lost or won in the world of work,” expressed Catherine Vaillancourt-Laflamme, chief technical advisor for the ILO-GIP. “The world of work is a privileged entry point to set in motion the transformations called for in the 2030 Agenda, and the vision Myanmar has set in motion in its Myanmar Sustainable development Plan.”