In 2011 Myanmar’s political and economic transformation was attracting new foreign direct investment and renewed enthusiasm. Footwear and apparel manufacturing acted as a driving force for growth, creating over 700,000 jobs and accounting for nearly two percent of the annual GDP growth. However, the 2021 political crisis led the once-promising industry to drastically contract. Exasperated by ongoing political tension, the COVID pandemic, and rising energy costs, Myanmar’s economy continues to suffer and unemployment continues to grow.
Global brands sourcing from Myanmar find themselves in the middle of a heated and public debate—should they stay or go? The debate is nuanced and complex - since leaving the country could be catastrophic for workers’ economic welfare, but staying is seen by some as financially or figuratively supporting the military regime. As the political crisis continues and vulnerabilities are exacerbated, the pressure on brands to act is mounting.
At the center of this crisis are workers, many of whom eagerly ditched the uncertainties of the agricultural sector to join the more stable manufacturing workforce. An estimated 32% of manufacturing workers have lost their jobs since the coup started.
In an effort to make evidence-based decisions, international companies sourcing from Myanmar are keen to hear directly from workers. In early 2022, several leading footwear and apparel companies engaged Labor Solutions to help overcome ongoing communication challenges and capture feedback directly from affected workers.
Labor Solutions started by conducting several worker surveys across the country: the response rates were unprecedented. Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles faced by workers and those trying to connect with and support them, nearly 100,000 workers responded (nearly 20% of the total workforce) to Labor Solutions’ surveys.
“We were shocked", said Bijie Li, SVP of Client Services, “more than 60% of workers that we contacted responded to the survey.” The sheer number of responses is a result of itself: workers want to be part of the conversation.
In November 2022, Ms. Li presented the findings of surveys conducted over the course of the year to over one hundred business owners and stakeholders at the Operational Grievance Mechanisms Workshop hosted by Myanmar Sustainable Business Network and UNDP’s Responsible Business Myanmar Project.
While results vary per factory, three main themes emerged;
Job security and the need to continue financially supporting their families is the chief concern among workers. For many, their factory jobs have become the only source of income for their family, as other sources of income have disappeared since the coup.
Workers have a strong sense of social connection in their workplace: most responses indicated that workers had friends at work and overall felt cared for by their managers.
Workers need to hear more from management. In times of high stress and change, communication is key. Workers reported feeling disengaged and confused when communication was weak.
One of the great advantages of conducting surveys at individual factories, says Ms. Li, "is the ability to collect localized data that is able to drive local change. Worker satisfaction is obviously not universally the same, but the best way to universally increase worker engagement and satisfaction is to make sure there is access to local data and to share those results with local decision-makers."
Results are always shared with both brands and factory managers who can leverage findings to cultivate social connection and proactively address stresses, rumors, and issues with their workforce. Most suppliers engage with the findings and those who don't face pressure from brands.
The surveys conducted in Myanmar showed that some suppliers needed additional capacity building and support. The EU-backed NGO SMART Textile & Garment partnered with Labor Solutions to implement a holistic program to help factories more actively communicate and engage with workers, particularly given the political climate and changing circumstances.
The program provides suppliers with Labor Solutions’ WOVO tech platform to support better worker engagement and communication. With WOVO, factories can proactively communicate with workers, seek worker feedback via surveys at any time, and allow workers to send anonymous messages with concerns, questions, or reports, regardless of the worker’s location. To protect workers, Labor Solutions has added several features, like disappearing messages and masked or anonymized responses, to the WOVO app to ensure messages don’t get into the wrong hands or result in retribution.
SMART uses the data from the surveys and grievance mechanism to create facility-specific Corrective Action Plans (CAPs) to remediate identified issues and ensure long-term strategies for success are embedded into their daily operations. In this process, brands support, rather than police and punish factories. The data allows brands to see each supplier as a unique workplace and provide localized improvement plans.
The results of this project thus far reinforce what we already know: workers are the engine of the garment industry and worker engagement and communication cannot be neglected in a holistic responsible sourcing strategy.
SMART Textile & Garments now renewed as MADE, is funded by the European Union and co-funded by private sector partners (brands, retailers, and factories) and aims at improving working conditions, promoting labor and environmental standards, and reducing labor rights abuses in the textile and garment industry. The project builds on the previous SMART projects implemented between 2013-2019 and will further upscale, expand and strengthen responsible and sustainable manufacturing practices across the Myanmar garment industry.
Labor Solutions, an impact-focused business, leverages technology to connect, engage, and educate workers to build resilient supply chains. Over a million and a half workers in 25 countries have access to Labor Solutions’ worker engagement platform, WOVO. Workers can respond to worker surveys, report grievances, and access eLearning modules on rights and responsibilities.