A baseline survey of Yangon Sector Workforce in the Garment Industry


In May 2017, C&A Foundation commissioned Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation and Andaman Research & Advisory to undertake a study of the garment sector workforce. C&A Foundation and its partners recognized there was a lack of a strong quantitative evidence on the demographics and economic standing of garment sector workers. This executive summary provides highlights and key findings from the full report, which seeks to provide a first step towards understanding who Myanmar garment workers are, their lives, and how organizations can work to empower them.

THE STORY OF A PROTOTYPICAL MYANMAR GARMENT WORKER: The prototypical Yangon garment sector worker is a young woman between the ages of 19 and 21, who has migrated to Yagon within the last two years. She is ethnically Bamar, speaks Burmese as her first language, and can read and write at a basic level having complet­ed grade five. She is from Ayeyarwaddy Region, though many of her friends are from Bago and Rakhine. She is unmarried and lives with several friends/colleagues and one other family member, her older cousin.

This worker is employed by a foreign-owned factory as a sewer. She joined the factory because it offered a decent regular salary for work that was neither physically demanding nor an unpleasant place to spend her days. Her workweek is six days, with her only day off on Sundays. She has been working in this factory for almost one year and if she were to quit, it would be to find a factory with better base pay. She has an ID card but no letter confirming her position and no copy of her contract.


The workforce is over whelmingly female: 94% of respondents were women.

Workers are young, with a clear majority between the ages of 16 and 23.

Most workers are Bamar and are migrants to Yangon, often from Ayeyarwaddy, Magway, or Bago Regions.

The largest ethnic minority group of workers are Rakhine (19%).

Her salary is paid monthly, at the beginning of each month and consists of her base salary plus overtime and any bonuses she may be eligible for. Workers can get bonuses for attendance, punctuality, and skills. While the envelope of cash that she receives comes with a pay slip explaining how it was calculated, it is confusing and frequently she does not fully understand all the parts of her salary. Over the last six months her base salary has not changed, and only one or two of her friends have seen theirs go up.

She almost always works overtime and though she does have the right to say no, she worries that if she refuses too often it will compromise her relationship with her supervisor (and consequently her monthly bonuses) or even lead to her being fired. Also, because her base salary is so low, she wants to work overtime; it is an important contributor to her salary as she normally gets between MMK 25,000 and MMK 50,000 in overtime pay alone. Her bonuses are more variable and smaller amounts; she rarely makes more than MMK 25,000 each month in bonuses.

As she lives away from her parents and extended family, she makes her own financial decisions. Her first priority is paying for her housing, which accounts for a large proportion of her income, and she pays between MMK 30,000 and MMK 60,000 each month, and it has increased recently. Most months, once she accounts for housing, food, and other necessary expenses, the money that remains is sent back to her family.
Occasionally she is able to save some for herself (and when she does she stores cash by hiding it or giving it to her landlord for safekeeping), but this is rare. As the money she remits every month is very important to her family, that is prioritised. Her friends who are a little older tend to save more and she hopes to be able to copy them in the coming years. While her salary is never high enough and she often has to take out small loans from senior colleagues or friends toward the end of the month, she does not have any substantial debts that she has to pay interest on.


  • All workers rely heavily on overtime, (over 90% had overtime pay every month) and feel pressured to accept overtime work, either indirectly or formally from managers. But it is important to their salary: over 75% received more than MMK 25,000 per month.
  • Workers are generally financially independent; 60% make their own financial decisions.
  • How respondents made financial decisions and what they spent varied by township, likely a reflection of different demographic (age and region of origin) trends.
  • While 31% of workers are able to save some money each month, generally by storing cash (62% of savers), 61% remit money to their family. There was also significant township variation for savings and remittances.
  • Workers in the middle age brackets (24-27) are the most common to report saving money most months, while younger workers show the highest remittance rates.
  • Interest-based debt was held by 34% of respondents, with notable township differences. In qualitative descriptions of debt, workers did not consider short-term loans from friends and co-workers that did not accrue interest to be part of their debt burden.


Though she thinks she has a good job and sees garment work as better than most of her other options, life in the factory is not without its challenges. These include the limited breaks, and frequent scolding from her seniors and line supervisors. She feels that this occasionally reaches verbal abuse; she has not experienced any physical or sexual violence. She is concerned that there is no complaint mechanism if she was the victim of more serious abuse.

She got her job through a friend from the same village who had migrated a year earlier and, now that she has her own network, would plan to find a future job through her Yangon friends. For her, the base pay is the most important aspect of a possible new job, though having good managers is also important. It is easy to get a job and if she can demonstrate her ability in the skills test, she will be rapidly employed at any factory. However, for now, she is happy with her current job and is not seeking to leave.

She has heard of unions and thinks that they represent workers in negotiations with management, but does not know much more than that about them. There are none in her factory, and she has only heard some of the more senior employees talking about them. She is not a union member and isn’t sure she wants to join because of the limited free time she has outside of work. Nevertheless, she votes, along with the rest of her line, for in-factory representatives who negotiate with ownership on any problems the workers
may have.


  • Length of service varies, 25% of workers have spent less than 6 months at their current factories and almost half over 1 year.
  • For over 50%, their current job is their first garment sector position.
  • Half (50%) got their job through a friend and even more (60%) thought their network of friends was the best way to find a new job.
  • Base pay is the most important chracteristic of any new job (67%)
  • There is a split between those who want to leave the sector and those who like their current job.


  • Of the slight majority of workers who had heard about labor unions (54%), understanding remained low, with 56% of them saying they did not know what a union’s purpose was.
  • 35% of workers who had heard about unions reported there were unions in their factory and most had heard about them from co-workers or senior employees (81% com­bined)
  • However, union membership is extremely low: just 15% of those who had access to unions were members, or just 22 out of a 778 person survey (3% of the whole sample).
  • Perceptions of unions were also mixed, with only 42% of those who had heard of unions but were not members expressing an interest in joining one. Qualitative findings suggested workers viewed union activities as taking up their limited free time for an unclear results.


Finally, she owns a smartphone, one that she bought herself after seeing all her new Yangon friends using theirs. She also wanted to be able to easily speak to her family on a regular basis. Each month she spends about MMK 5,000 on credit, divided between the two SIM cards she has — one from Telenor and one from MPT. She uses MPT to check Facebook as it has a free mode on their network, while Telenor’s special offers allow her to call her parents (also Telenor users) without using too much credit. All her friends use either Telenor or MPT and a lot of them also have two SIM cards.

Because she cannot afford to spend more on credit, she is very concerned about the cost of 3G and only turns it on occasionally to download messages from Viber or Facebook updates. Generally, she has 3G on for about an hour. Her and most of her friends have Facebook accounts and everyone with a smartphone has Viber; all the apps on her phone were pre-loaded by the phone store but she does not tend to use other ones.

As her factory prohibits phone use, except at lunch breaks, she only uses it in the evening. Most of her time spent on her phone is calling her parents and friends back home, chatting on social media, or watching movies and listening to music shared by co-workers.


  • A large majority, 83%, of workers own a smart phone.
  • Most workers spend less than MMK 10,000 per month, but this is a measurable proportion of their income. Half spend less than MMK 5,000.
  • Workers are concerned about 3G usage: 53% turn it on less than 1 hour per day and 12% never use it.
  • A majority of workers have Viber (91%) and Facebook (77%), with most using few other apps.


  • For this survey 778 workers were interviewed across two townships in Yangon, Hlaingtharya and Shwepyitha. The sample is representative at the township level.
  • As there was no pre-existing sampling frame, a modified approach was used where wards and neighborhoods with high densities of workers were identified. Following this, field teams used transect walks based on worker hostels to identify respondents.
  • A team of 20 conducted the research over the course of two months, interviewing only on Sundays—most garment workers one day off.
  • A series of FGDs were also held with subsection of respondents to add explanatory depth. A total of 13 FGDs were conducted across the two townships.

Copyright: Andaman Research & Advisory, C&A Foundation, EMREF


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