My first ever Burmese friend was 21 year old Anna, our live-in cook and cleaner in Chiang Mai. She came from a hill tribe in the very North of Burma and when I asked her why she’d taken a job so many miles away from her family home, she turned and said to me “It’s to make money to go shopping. I love fashion”.
When I crossed the border from Mae Sot and into Myawaddy, this was one of the first things that popped into my head and I started noticing the change in what people were wearing. The men all wore subtle-coloured longhis and the women were parading around their dirt track catwalk in colourful, woven co-ords.
According to The State of Fashion report by McKinsey and The Business of Fashion in January 2018, for the first time in history, over 50% of global footwear and apparel sales will take place in the East. So on my Gap Year for Geriatrics through South East Asia, I wanted to check out the state of fashion here for myself.
GET YOUR WEAVE ON
Myanmar’s most popular handicraft is traditional weaving which has been flourishing since the Bagan period. There are hundreds of traditional tribes, each with their own fashions and traditional costumes and it’s a land where everyone’s a seamstress.
The ‘lun taya acheik longyi’ (one hundred shuttle wave), which weaves threads of pure silk in wavy horizontal lines was a technology that turned this craft into a national treasure. It’s a legacy that has been handed down from one generation to another and one that the government is now doing its best to preserve.
Brands are big; there’s a huge importance placed on wearing a brand for social status, conformity and belonging. They tend to focus on good quality at low prices and are very heavily influenced by Thai and Chinese designs that are adapted slightly to local taste. Some companies will produce garments for one particular city and others are oriented towards a handful of states.
THE LOOM BOOM
During a sixty year period of military rule, which saw the nationalisation of all its major industries and numerous changes to the law, Myanmar’s garment industry saw exponential growth, exporting to the US and Europe, followed by an equally drastic decline when trade barriers went up.
When the regime finally collapsed in 2011, governmental policies were up for renewal which opened up Burma’s borders to a whole new world of commerce.
Policies have been introduced that are aimed at attracting foreign investment by lowering export duty, reducing restrictions on the financial sector, revising the foreign investment law, and executing currency reforms.
At the same time, wages in China have continued to rise which has meant that global brands and retailers have been looking elsewhere to produce their products cheaply.
Thanks to a high literacy rate, low average age and one of the lowest minimum wages in South East Asia, Myanmar is now joining the likes of Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines as a go-to country for CMP (cut, make, pack) mass-market garments.
Exports now total $3bn and have huge potential to contribute further to national economic growth. There are new factories are popping up all over the country, according to some sources at a rate of two per week, especially around Yangon’s industrial centre.
MYANMAR’S DIRTY SECRETS
As any in any other LDC (least developed country), the issues that slow down industry growth are things like poor infrastructure, telecommunication and port facilities, irregular electricity supplies, a weak banking system and low productivity. But thanks to new investments and future-proof government reforms, it shouldn’t be too long before all of these things start to be taken care of.
It’s the social challenges the industry faces that are the most alarming.
There are poor health and safety conditions and long working hours; some workers can be found working more than 60 hours per week and many without contracts meaning they lack the basic rights of job security.
Child labour is a commonly reported issue, although I have to say my thoughts on this are not necessarily fully formed.
I question Western society’s childification of youth in that we’re not legally referred to as an adult until we hit eighteen and potentially mollycoddled on our journey to that life changing age point when the burdens of responsibility officially fall on our shoulders.
Compare that to places like Myanmar where perhaps due to circumstances, children have to grow up a little faster and contribute to the family income at an earlier age. Taking that away from them could actually have a more detrimental affect than it does good.
But regardless, by far the most upsetting thing to read about the industry here, something I was more than familiar with in my roles in Strategic Sourcing for global brands, is that working conditions can be atrocious.
Around 90% of garment industry workers in Myanmar are female and on average they earn 7% less than their male counterparts. Most have left their homes in rural areas and migrated to industrial regions for work and send up to half their income home to their families, meaning they have to survive on pennies and a lot of the time can’t access safe housing and transportation.
Sexual harassment and violence in the workplace is not by any means uncommon, in fact in some factories it’s quite the norm.
There are various retailers and organisations like the ILO (International Labor Organisation) making efforts for improvement and a law that criminalises violence against women and provides legal grounding for workplace anti-sexual harassment policies is being finalised.
So now the spotlight is on, hopefully the drastic reforms that are needed will be made quickly so that together with its colourful past and transformative present, Myanmar can weave together a very vibrant future.