Empowering women garment workers across Myanmar and Bangladesh

In July the EU-funded SMART Myanmar II project organized a study mission in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to meet women’s community organizations and garment industry affiliates.

The main objective of the study mission was for the group to visit women’s centres in Dhaka, commonly called “Women’s Cafes”, to share experiences and best practices on their outreach and educational programmes for garment workers.

Women’s Cafes are community centres established near industrial zones for female garment workers to meet, relax and be trained on labour law issues, so to empower them to know about their rights and responsibilities.

The trip was organized in cooperation with Thone Pann Hla, a civil society organization of women garment workers in Yangon. The Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, SMART Myanmar’s local partner, facilitated the exchange, which was funded by the C&A Foundation.

SMART Myanmar and Thone Pann Hla are currently scaling up Thone Pann Hla’s “Sunday Cafe”, a Women’s Cafe in Yangon which has been operating since early 2014 in an industrial zone, where it offers different trainings and informative sessions to more than 15,000 women workers.

As Thone Pann Hla seeks to expand its services to a larger number of garment employees and SMART Myanmar committed to provide technical and financial support to open and run a second Sunday Cafe in late 2016, the project chose to visit Bangladesh to learn alternative ways to run a women’s community centre, focused on improving the lives and livelihoods of garment factory workers.

Women constitute the main workforce in Asia’s garment and textile industry. (Source: SWITCH-Asia project)

Bangladesh is a country with significant garment production and several NGOs have established Women’s Cafes in Dhaka and Chittagong. A significant number of these Women’s Cafes are supported by the German International Cooperation (GIZ), which has close relations with sequa, SMART Myanmar’s leading partner, thus enabling the visit.

In Dhaka, the Burmese group met with representatives of the Awaj Foundation, an organization of 25,000 members that has been operating more than half a dozen Women’s Cafes in Bangladesh for the past 7 years.

In 2014 their work has been evaluated by third parties. The ensuing report showed that 87 % of the workers have increased knowledge about the Bangladeshi Labour law, a precondition for women to be able to claim their rights. 18 % of the women mentioned that they claimed their rights. Among those who claimed their rights, 30% did so for overtime, 28% for leave, 19% for unlawful termination, and 14% for timely or full payment of wages.

Discussions with NGOs and workers revealed that they have been able to resolve conflicts with factory management on various workers rights issues. Instances of abuse and mistreatment of workers have also fallen. The reviewed project strengthened the voice of the workers through training them on labour laws, negotiation skills and worker responsibilities. Workers have gained confidence and ability to negotiate with factory managers. Training provided by the NGOs to mid-level managers, as part of this project, also raised their awareness of worker rights. NGOs have been active in arbitration and conflict resolution. All these efforts have reduced labour unrest.

Over the years, compliance with labour laws has increased in general due to the combined efforts of foreign buyers, government institutions, international agencies, business associations and workers’ organisations.

Despite their successes, Women’s Cafes also face challenges. Although good initiatives have been taken, financial sustainability of the cafés has not been fully achieved. Committees formed through the efforts of the Cafes have not been fully functional and have not met expectations.

Awaj Foundation, which hosted the study mission, took the Burmese delegation to three women’s cafes and provided opportunities to meet with a variety of support groups, such as legal advisors and medical support officers. The support groups are not integrated into the Cafes but linked through the provision of services.
During the trip, the group also visited a garment factory in Gazipur on the outskirts of Dhaka. The SMART staff met with various representatives of the garment and textile program called “Promotion of Social and Environmental Standards in the Industry”, PSES, a program implemented by GIZ Bangladesh. The exchange of know-how and experiences on Women Cafes and Compliance Awards was very useful for future implementation of these activities.

Teaching and training are core services provided by Women’s Cafes. (Source: SWITCH-Asia project)

The trip to Bangladesh confirmed that Cafes can play a very important role in educating workers, especially women workers. Therefore the SWITCH-Asia project intends to continue supporting and fostering their replication in Myanmar, bearing in mind from the start the need for careful design of services and long-term sustainability.

Legal advice services, for instance, shall be introduced at low or no cost but at high quality. Special training and services are needed for new migrant workers entering the garment sector.

Thone Pann Hla also offers space within Sunday Café facilities for women to do their laundry and runs a small dormitory for those women migrant workers who arrive in Yangon without a place to stay. These laundry and dormitory services, which are not provided by Women’s Cafes in Bangladesh, may contribute to partially co-finance the Cafes in Myanmar.

Ms. Khine Khine Nwe, Secretary General of MGMA, said that “MGMA and SMART Myanmar are very excited to have facilitated this valuable exchange trip. This is perfect timing. Together with Thone Pann Hla, we are already preparing to equip a second Sunday Café in October this year. Through this women garment workers club, we are expecting to promote the capacity of each and every woman garment worker individual to upgrade their lifestyle. The experience they have gained from Dhaka was immensely instructive as we seek to replicate and even strengthen the existing approach.”

Her words were echoed by Ms. Than Dar Ko, the Director of Thone Pann Hla, who explained that “From this exchange trip we have learnt ways to improve our current and future Sunday Cafes. We believe this would lead to helping the women in the garment sector to be more efficient and healthier lifestyle. I hope they would also become supportive of more pleasant working relationships.”

The delegation from Myanmar included two garment factory employees, the manager of Yangon’s Sunday Café, the director of Thone Pann Hla and three members of the SMART Myanmar project team. As a next step, delegates from Bangladesh will visit Myanmar’s Sunday Cafes.

Written by: Su Tayar Lin / SMART Myanmar II project
Edited by: Silvia Sartori / SWITCH-Asia Network Facility


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