A widening gap between rising living costs and the income of lower wage earners is leading to problems for working families and growing conflicts between employers and their employees.
A worker at a local factory typically earns around Ks 30,000 (US$ 30) a month or merely a dollar a day. With the rise of consumer product prices, increases in rental fees and government hikes on electricity and other services, many families are struggling to survive.
“Living costs are getting higher than our income. We are currently living in Hlaingthara Township. Over the last two months, the living cost rose by 25 percent. Though our factory raised our salary, it doesn’t cover the costs,” said Moe Wai from a worker union at Tai Ye Shoe Factory.
With over 900 recorded disputes between employees and employers in factories and workshops across the country last year, most were over questions of pay raise, according to workers’s rights activists.
The temporary Myanmar Workers Union conducted a survey in 46 townships across the country over the general living costs and setting an official minimum wage.
The survey calculated that an overall monthly living cost for a three member household based on current consumer product prices is at least Ks 180,000 (US$ 180) a month. A worker would only be able to meet this if he or she earns Ks 7000 a day (US$ 7).
Hla Win who was a worker in the 1970s said that he used to earn Ks 82 and could afford to treat himself to delicious curries. But the current rise of consumer product prices and accommodation means that workers have to cut back on healthcare and other necessities.
“Accommodation costs are higher than food prices. The basic consumer product prices become high whenever the government increases salaries. We are like sitting ducks as we cannot afford to spend a large sum of money on our health care,” said Hla Win, who is now the owner of Lucky Bird plastic factory.
The government has announced that it plans to fix the minimum wage for workers across the country by the end of this year. Workers’ skills, job types and the region will determine what salary they earn.
Workers have been advocating for a minimum daily wage of Ks 7000 and pointed out that the minimum government salary should be able to cover the basic living costs.
Ye Naing Win, a representative from the labour affairs handling council in Nay Pyi Taw, confirms that there is no current improvement in the job situation and basic salary of workers.
“The conflict between the employers and employees has reached a deadlock. The government side should make a bit more effort to cooperate on workers’ demands for salary increase and mounting employer-employee issues,” he said.
While such conflicts are on the rise, there are few channels for workers to advocate or negotiate and many are forced to protest for their rights. Since the current government took office in 2011, over a thousand workers got sacked while some others were charged by Section 18 for protesting.
“Salary should be at least Ks 8,000-9,000 for daily existence of a worker. If not families cannot stand. The employers do not want to increase the salary, citing hikes in power fees and lower production. They should not put the blame on this matter, those from the grass-root level mostly have to bear the brunt of it,” said Tun Aye, owner of Shweyamone cold-storage factory in Hlaingthaya township.
There is currently no minimum fixed salary for factory workers. At present, the average salary is around Ks 20,000 to 30,000 a month. The ministry of labour has enacted the minimum wage law to go into effect by the end of this year.
Most factories in Myanmar pay a pittance to their workers, forcing them to work 12 hours a day, in standing up positions with few breaks and compulsory overtime. Most threaten to get a worker replaced if he or she complains, according to a recent report by a parliamentary joint committee.
Workers and activists say that protests will certainly continue before a minimum wage is set as there are prevailing problems between them and employers who violate worker rights.