Global Brands Opt for EU-Backed Factories to Avoid Pitfalls of Controversial Garment Industry

With its clean white surfaces, regulated humidity and glowing fluorescent lights, the quality control division of Bogart Lingerie’s facility in the Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone looks more like a medical laboratory than a garment factory.

Inside the Yangon factory, workers sort through bras and underwear fresh from the production lines, checking for any defects before they are boxed and sent to retail in Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“There’s a happy working environment here,” said Lwin Lwin Aung, 30, who has worked at Bogart for three years.

It is a shining example of good practice in the garment sector, but workplaces like this are all too rare in Myanmar, where the labour union movement is in its infancy and reports of poor conditions are common.

A report published by Oxfam in December 2015 found forced overtime, unsafe working conditions, sexual harassment and verbal abuse at the hands of superiors still occurs at alarming rates inside Yangon’s garment factories.

Large foreign brands entering the country are keen to differentiate themselves from the industry’s poor image, but that hasn’t always gone to plan.

Earlier this year it was revealed that two Myanmar factories making products for Swedish fashion chain H&M were employing girls as young as 14, who were working for more than 12 hours a day.

The people behind the EU-backed SMART Myanmar project hope to help make cases like this part of Myanmar’s past, and are working with garment manufacturers to change the industry’s image for the better. The industry seems keen on the idea: established global brands including Elle, Tommy Hilfiger and Victoria’s Secret have all opted for Bogart Lingerie’s factory to produce their intimate apparel.

In order to be eligible for lucrative contracts with foreign customers, a manufacturer must adhere to standards in health and safety, workers rights and quality set by the major markets like the United States and EU.

The SMART project, among other things, helps suppliers improve labour rights and productivity and reduce waste. It works much like an audit, with every aspect of a factory’s operation under scrutiny. SMART then helps the factory develop a checklist of areas that need improvement.

A desire to become internationally competitive is driving manufacturers to lift standards of social compliance, Jacob Andrew Clare, Team Leader at SMART Myanmar, told Myanmar Business Today.

“Myanmar has a good opportunity, there’s about one new factory opening a week [in Hlaing Tharyar]… the industry is changing and Myanmar is specialising more and more in complicated product styles because of the country’s ability to handle challenging products,” he said.

Bogart’s is one of 150 factories signed up for the SMART program and Andrew Clare said that while they are on the upper end of the scale in terms of best practice, other long-established factories who produce for local or regional markets don’t choose to join the program because there’s no incentive for them to change.

With a dearth of government regulations within the garment industry and few means to enforce those that do exist, the hope is that increasing competition can be harnessed to encourage manufactures themselves to improve the industry.

But regional examples like Cambodia suggest the industry will always find a way to do things as cheap and as fast as possible with a disregard for labor rights said  Bobbie Sta. Maria, Southeast Asia Researcher & Representative at Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.

Ultimately, however, foreign direct investment could have a positive effect on labor standards in Myanmar’s garment industry she added.

“In a way, being linked to western brands places more pressure on factories because most of these western brands have policies in place that are in support of human rights and unionising, so that’s a source of good,”

For Bogart, its the financial incentive that makes it worthwhile.

“If we don’t invest in these sorts of things, we don’t have earning power,” said Felix Chaung, Bogart’s managing director. “When we invest, our efficiency improves so we can increase worker’s wages.”

 

Source: Myanmar Business Today

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