Workers live in shadow of poverty (Burma/Myanmar)

Ko Kyaw Kyaw Lin (left) and his wife Ma Khin Hnin Wai in their house in Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone 2. Zarni Phyo/The Myanmar Times

Tucked in the corner of the Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone 2, factory worker Ko Kyaw Kyaw Lin’s house is a little ramshackle where he lives with his wife of three years.

The 29 years-old works for the Silver Lion Fiber Glass Company in the industrial zone and his take home salary is a paltry K130,000 after a month’s hard work .

“If we combine both our salaries my wife’s and mine, it is just over K300,000 per month. It is insufficient as we’re in debt too. We had to send our kid back to the village because we couldn’t provide for her,” he told The Myanmar Times in an interview last week.

He has been with  the company for over eight years now and married. In 2009, his  basic salary was only K20,000 and now his gross salary is K130,000 including attendance payment.

To supplement the family’s income, Ko Kyaw Kyaw Lin’s spouse  Ma Khin Hnin Wai, 26, works at the Cellon Myanmar Garment Factory, where she earns K180,000 per month.

The two struggle to make ends meet and had to send their daughter when she was just two months old to Nyaungton township, Ayerwady region –  a five hour drive do them apart.

“Even though I am yearning for my daughter, we can’t bring her back because our earnings are not enough to support her here,” lamented Ko Kyaw Kyaw Lin’s wife. “I try to heal my heart by looking at her pictures.”

Ko Kyaw Kyaw Lin is now facing health problems after being exposed to hazards at work place and wants to quit his job, but unable to do so as he is waiting for his medical results, which could help him get compensation from the company if he is discovered to have any disease.

The Myanmar Times reporters ventured to Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone to recollect tales of those  working in the industrial era.

Dozens of little houses are perched  along the edge of the factory areas, some recently settled, while other others have been living for over 10 years.

It was discovered that with limited income, no proper access to healthcare, exposed to health hazards at workplace and absence of safety net if they lost their jobs,  thousands of factory workers struggle to eke out a tough life,  like Ko Kyaw Kyaw Lin and his wife. They  live in dingy homes and separated from loved ones and many forced to make a hard decision to leave their families as economic opportunities are scarce back home.

The fruits of Myanmar sizzling economic success over the past years are yet to trickle down to these groups of workers.

Based on K4,000 per day salary, workers would earn about K120,000 per month, excluding overtime. If overtime is included they could roughly earn about  K172,000.

Meanwhile, if  minimum wages is fixed at K4,400, workers will earn K132,000  as basic salary and get K189,000, if 5 hours overtime is included.

If wages are fixed at K4,800, a worker will earn K144,000 as basic salary and get K206,400 if five hours overtime is added.

According to workers, living costs – including room rental and food expenses – amounted to nearly K80,000 a month and rose to K120,000 due to the rising cost of basic commodities.

Choked by the price of living with regard to their meager salaries, employees struggle to survive on their current wages.

Ko Myo Zaw also works in a textile factory at Hlaing Tharyar.  Likewise, he got married three years ago and dreamt  of having a kid. But it may be just a dream when he thinks of the current costs to bring her up – living, healthcare and education costs  for his child. It is beyond  his reach, at least for the moment.

Unfortunately, these are not isolated cases. Many others migrated from rural areas to Yangon’s industrial zone, in search of employment. In 2016-17, over 130,000 workers have been employed in seven categories of work throughout the complex. ,

“In my nine years here, I have never been to places in Yangon, except for Shwedagon Pagoda. I don’t want to spend extra money, it is usually work and back to my room. My life is like a robot,” said Ma Aye Myat Thu, aged 26, a worker from Ever Sunny Industry Co Ltd.

Rental is a major issue for workers and many lease apartments to live in  groups in cramped rooms.  Four or five staff share an accommodation to save costs.

“I can’t afford to pay the rental by myself on my current salary. Therefore, I stay with my  flat mates to share the cost,” said Ko Thein Htet Aung, 21 who  works in the food industry.

The rental  of room, house and flat which can accommodate three to five people, range anything from K32,000 to  K75,000 in Hlaing Tharyar and Shwe Pyi Thar townships, where most factory workers live.

According to the workers from Hlaing Tharyar industrial zones, their monthly living cost is between K100,000 and K200,000.

U Myo Zaw, member of Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM) said workers spend nearly 95 percent of their monthly salaries on living cost and they could not cover other social costs with the rest of their wages.

In 2015, the government fixed K3,600 for eight hours of work as minimum wage. However, labour unions criticised that this amount is insufficient to cover living expenses and demand a raise to K5,600. And, this led to frequent labour disputes between workers and factory owners.

But there could be silver lining to workers’ sufferings soon as various stakeholders from the government, employers and employees organisations are busy negotiating  a decent minimum wage for workers next year.
The CTUM is demanding for K6600 minimum wage while the Labour Ministry had proposed K4000 to K4800 wage bracket.

But certain groups, especially employers hinted that any excessive rise in wages, at a time when the economy is slowing down, could impact businesses and some factories may be forced to close down due to high overheads.
The National Committee for New Minimum Wages has to finalised the exact minimum wage by 2018.

With rising cost of living and inflation at 4pc, workers must be paid a decent salary, like in neighbouring countries, or they will be pushed to the brink of poverty.

By: Nyan Lynn Aung, Myanmar Times

Published on: 20 October 2017

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