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Workers struggle to make ends meet in Myanmar

Since the military seized power in a coup in February 2021, the new regime has presided over an economic collapse marked by rising inflation and the runaway depreciation of the kyat. The lawlessness caused by the coup has created a space for unscrupulous business owners to take advantage of lax regulations, slashing wages and ending overtime pay.

Rising prices - lower wages

The price of basic commodities is rising across the board.

Before the coup, one pyi (around 1.9 kilograms) of the lowest quality type of rice sold for around K1,300 – today it is selling for K3,900. One litre of palm oil sold for between K1,500 and K2,000, is now up to K5,000. One litre of the cheapest fuel was about K400 – today it is K2,300.

Meanwhile, daily wage workers take home just K3,600 per day while contract workers make K4,800, which now puts both groups of workers below the World Bank’s International Poverty Line of $1.90 per day.

Minimum wage is kept low

The minimum wage is legally required to be reviewed every two years by a committee including representatives from the labour ministry, business and trade unions. The committee last met in January 2020 to start negotiations after the previous minimum wage was set in 2018, but negotiations stalled due to COVID-19, with many factories closing amid mass layoffs.

After the coup, the junta formed a new National Committee on the Minimum Wage that excluded trade unions and declined to raise the minimum wage. One reason the junta may have for keeping the minimum wage low is to attract and retain international garment manufacturers, as a steady stream of foreign companies exit the country. A March review by the WageIndicator Foundation and GlobalData found that Myanmar had the third lowest salary for garment workers in the world.

Unfair working conditions

Many workers want to go abroad, inspired not just by the economic collapse, but also by increased labour rights violations. Rights activists and workers say that factory owners are no longer respecting basic rights, like paid leave, fair compensation or overtime pay.

“In the garment industry, increasing reports show workers in precarious employment including casual or daily labor, irregular working hours, and workers receiving lower pay,” said an August report by the International Labor Organization.

Trade unions have received numerous complaints that factory owners are only allowing unpaid leave, even though paid leave is required under the law. But it is increasingly difficult for trade unions to operate in Myanmar, due to legal persecution of unions and their refusal to cooperate with the junta. The Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar can’t do anything under the military junta. That is why the owners of factories are taking advantage.

Garment workers protest against the military days after the coup in February 2021. (Frontier)


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