Myanmar sets minimum wage for first time

This picture taken on Aug 22, 2015 shows workers unloading a truck with goods into a shop in Yangon.
This picture taken on Aug 22, 2015 shows workers unloading a truck with goods into a shop in Yangon. PHOTO: AFP

Workers across all sectors and industries to get $4 for eight-hour day from Tuesday

YANGON • Myanmar's government has approved the country's first national minimum wage, state media reported, after months of bitter negotiations with labour groups and employers.

The wage has been set at 3,600 kyat (S$4) "for a standard eight-hour work day" and takes effect from Tuesday, said the state-run Global New Light Of Myanmar newspaper yesterday.

It will apply to workers "across all sectors and industries" but small businesses employing fewer than 15 people will be excluded.

Myanmar has seen a wave of protests for better pay and conditions, particularly among workers in the growing garment sector, after decades of direct junta rule came to an end in 2011.

The wage decision announced by the National Minimum Wage Committee last Friday follows several rounds of talks between the government, labour groups, employers and workers since a law approving its introduction was passed in 2013.

In neighbouring Thailand, where an estimated two million Myanmar nationals form part of a vast migrant labour force, the national minimum wage is set at 300 baht (S$11) per day. But rights groups say Myanmar migrants are often paid less than this amount, work in poor conditions and are subject to exploitation, as they often lack official work permits, despite Thailand's drive to regularise migrant labour.

It comes as part of the plethora of political and economic reforms introduced under the quasi-civilian government that has also seen a growth in foreign investment, with big brands looking to move into the nation after most international sanctions were dropped.

But even the low-wage sum reached had been vehemently opposed by some employers who claim that low worker productivity in Myanmar meant they could not afford to pay more.

Pressure to adopt a fair minimum wage has also come from outside, with a number of Western manufacturers arguing that poor pay was counter-productive.

Employees in Myanmar had previously been demanding a minimum of 4,000 kyat a day, with protests over wages outside factories seeing several labourers arrested in the ensuing police crackdowns.

In neighbouring Thailand, where an estimated two million Myanmar nationals form part of a vast migrant labour force, the national minimum wage is set at 300 baht (S$11) per day.

But rights groups say Myanmar migrants are often paid less than this amount, work in poor conditions and are subject to exploitation, as they often lack official work permits, despite Thailand's drive to regularise migrant labour.

In June, the US State Department downgraded Thailand to its lowest ranking in a report on human trafficking, highlighting in particular abuses in the fisheries industry among others.

The Thai food export industry has since been at pains to try and burnish its image.

Regionally, debate over improving factory conditions and worker pay has intensified since the deadly 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh highlighted appalling safety problems in the country's lucrative garment industry.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline 'Myanmar sets minimum wage for first time'. Print Edition | Subscribe