YANGON, Myanmar – Wearing an expression of intense concentration, Myanmar garment worker Htet Myat Nyein stitches jackets bound for wealthy foreign high streets, part of a booming industry fuelling much of the country’s modernization drive.
“I learned to sew at this factory,” she tells the Agence France-Presse, her soft voice almost lost in the clatter of sewing machines at the Shweyi Zabe factory on the fast-industrialising outskirts of Yangon.
Most families in her hardscrabble Hlaing Thar Yar neighbourhood still survive on remittances from abroad – the legacy of decades of brutal rule and economic mismanagement under the former junta.
Htet Myat Nyein, her cheeks dusted with circles of traditional thanaka powder, says there are just two career paths for those who remain in her neighbourhood: “Garment work and beauty parlours, that is all.”
Myanmar has pinned its hopes on industrialization as it looks to reshape an economy long-dominated by subsistence agriculture and resource extraction that enriched a tiny elite but did nothing to lift living standards in one of the world’s poorest nations.
Plans to build a prosperous Myanmar, which still languishes around the bottom of global development tables, rest on the outcome of the November 8 elections pitting the army-backed ruling party against Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
Suu Kyi, who recently toured a garment factory with Angelina Jolie, is widely expected to lead her party to a sweeping win in the first nationwide election it has fought in a quarter century.
But with the next president yet to be decided – under the military drafted constitution Suu Kyi is banned from the top post – questions abound over the possible trajectory of reforms.
Fast growing economy
Nonetheless with the World Bank’s projections placing Myanmar as the world’s fourth fastest growing economy, the emergent nation is a tempting prospect.
Ideally located between China and India it boasts a 51 million strong population offering both cheap labour and potential new consumers.
Garment making is expanding fast. Exports last year reached $1.5 billion – 14% of the country’s total exports – according to the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, which says some 70% of industrial jobs in Yangon are now in the sector.
The country has already attracted major fashion brands, including high street staples Gap and H&M.
Overall foreign investment to Myanmar jumped to $8 billion this year, double the government’s target, while the country’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ), the Japan-backed Thilawa project near Yangon, is stirring to life.
But Myanmar will have to develop fast if it is to challenge regional garment manufacturing hubs like Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh. Between 60 and 70 percent of Myanmar’s citizens still work in agriculture.
Political uncertainties have also dampened the investment buzz as the nation heads towards crucial elections, while firms face a host of challenges including unstable electricity, patchy communications, poor infrastructure and significant corruption.
Sean Turnell, an expert on Myanmar’s economy who has advised Suu Kyi’s party, said a “manufacturing renaissance” could see the sector as a whole account for up to 30 percent of the economy.
“I very much expect that the NLD will implement policies sufficiently pro-growth and development that effectively all of Myanmar becomes one enormous and prosperous SEZ,” he told AFP.
The West has welcomed many of Myanmar’s reforms, including better labour rights and ending draconian media censorship, although there have been rising fears of backtracking in recent months.
But not all garment workers find success.
Earlier this year Myanmar set its first ever daily minimum wage — of 3,600 kyat ($2.80) — in an effort to balance cut-price competitiveness with rising calls for fair pay from workers faced with surging consumer prices.
The move was welcomed by Western brands whose consumers are increasingly conscious of the human cost of their clothing after high-profile scandals like the deadly 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh.
But some employers said they could not afford the new wages, which still leave Myanmar labor among the cheapest in the region.
Activists say more than a thousand people were sacked in response to the changes while state media recently reported some factories have simply stopped paying overtime or transportation costs.
Hayman San spent 3 years honing her skills at a garment factory before being unceremoniously fired with some 200 colleagues.
“I did nothing wrong, I am so angry,” said the 27-year-old, who shares a small bamboo shack with her parents and sister in Hlaing Thar Yar, where rickety homes fringe hulking new factories.
The family is part a flood of people who have left villages in the rice-growing Irrawaddy Delta to seek work in Yangon.
Still unemployed, she says her plans of opening a small farm supplies shop in her village were receding.
“I could have saved the money in a year,” she told AFP. “Now my dreams are broken.”