During the Mekong Migration Network (MMN) and Asian Institute of Technology's (AIT) workshop, Jobs in SEZs: Promoting Gender-Sensitive Policies in the Mekong Region, representatives of governments, special economic zone (SEZ) management bodies, and civil society from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand, committed to promoting decent work in Mekong SEZs.
From 20-21 June, representatives of the Myanmar, Cambodian and Thai governments, Thilawa SEZ and Phnom Penh SEZ management committees, employer associations, UN agencies, Asian Development Bank, and civil society organisations (CSOs) gathered in Bangkok to hear research findings and recommendations from the Mekong Migration Network (MMN) and Asian Institute of Technology's (AIT) recent project and forthcoming report that will be published next month, and to discuss what SEZs can and should do to promote opportunities for decent work for women migrant workers.
Influenced by the project's findings on limited childcare supports for migrant workers in SEZs, Dr. Than Than Thwe, Joint Secretary 1 of Myanmar's Thilawa SEZ Management Committee, presented a three-year plan to conduct a detailed survey on the childcare needs of Thilawa SEZ workers. This survey would lead to the implementation of SEZ-based, as well as potentially community-based, childcare centres. Dr. Than Than Thwe explained that factory owners' monthly Corporate Social Responsibility contributions could support the development of these centres.
"On-site childcare is a win for everyone," Dr. Than Than Thwe exclaimed, from employers, as it would contribute to "reducing labour shortages" and "increasing productivity," to employees, as it would provide "a safe environment for their children" and "emotional security." Spurred by the example of Thilawa SEZ, Mr. Sun Samouen, Senior Human Resource Manager of Phnom Penh SEZ, informed the plenary that Phnom Penh SEZ would also begin investigating the possibility of setting up a childcare centre in the zone.
Another encouraging initiative was shared by Mr. Soe Naing, Deputy Director of the Department of Labour under Myanmar's Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population (MOLIP), and a representative of the Labour Section of Thilawa SEZ. Mr. Soe Naing informed participants that SEZ-based firms have agreed to pay new workers the full minimum wage from the onset of employment rather than training and probationary-period wages, which are legally less than the statutory minimum wage of 4,800 Myanmar kyat (or around 3 US dollars) per day.
During the workshop, participants from Myanmar actively debated the project's recommendation to pay workers a living wage, agreeing on the need to study and account for inflation and the rising cost of living for families as opposed to gauging it on an individual's basic needs, when devising a new minimum wage rate. A Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia representative shared Cambodia's standing practice of reviewing the minimum wage annually through tripartite negotiations in line with ILO standards, and encouraged the Myanmar counterparts to consider doing the same. Since Myanmar's Minimum Wage Law was adopted in 2013, a new minimum wage rate has been set roughly once every two years.
MMN and AIT researchers shared project findings revealing restrictions on workers' access to freedom of association and limited social dialogue platforms across all of the studied SEZs. Study respondents reported cases of collective industrial actions being suppressed, trade unions struggling to be established, and outside unions failing to access workers inside the zones. During the meeting, representatives of the Thilawa SEZ Management Committee and MOLIP expressed a commitment to working with trade unions and labour rights organisations moving forward; a commitment which CSOs intend to closely follow up on.
Despite seeming enthusiasm for improved working conditions and access to labour rights in SEZs from some Myanmar and Cambodian actors, participants acknowledged the challenges that exist for Myanmar cross-border migrant workers in Thailand's Tak SEZ. Employers in Tak are increasingly registering migrant workers for border passes under Section 64 of the Royal Ordinance on the Management of Foreign Workers Employment B.E. 2560 (2017), which grants workers 30-day visas and 90-day work permits. This form of registration excludes migrant workers from accessing social security benefits, limits their movement to the three districts classified as Tak SEZ, and prevents them from migrating with dependents, further reducing childcare options.
While issues were raised related to the need to recognise workers' skills and pay them accordingly, CSOs shared that migrant workers in Tak SEZ continue to receive far less than the 310 Thai baht (10 US dollars) daily minimum wage, with the study finding that workers were receiving around 57% of the minimum wage (174 Thai baht or 5.66 US dollars) on average.
From 2016 to 2019, MMN and AIT, supported by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC), investigated labour and migration issues through a gendered lens in four SEZs: Thilawa SEZ in Myanmar, Phnom Penh SEZ and Manhattan SEZ in Cambodia, and Tak SEZ in Thailand. Guided by the question of whether the jobs being created within Mekong SEZs are promoting 'decent work' - an International Labour Organization (ILO) concept for fair and secure job opportunities - for women migrant workers, the study focused its attention on the garment industry within these zones.
SEZ development has been expanding in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) in recent years. Myanmar is constructing three SEZs, while there are roughly 30 in Cambodia, 10 in Thailand, and over 30 in other GMS countries. The garment industry is being established in these spaces as investment privileges and quality infrastructure are aimed at attracting manufacturers seeking low production and labour costs.
Women represent the majority of the garment industry's workforce, but are often concentrated in the lowest paying positions with the least recognised skills. The challenges they face are compounded when they are also migrants, who experience a unique set of vulnerabilities. Within the GMS, manufacturing production in SEZs increasingly hinges on internal and cross-border migrant labour.
Although MMN and AIT's study found that the potential of Mekong SEZs to support decent work has not yet been realised, multi-stakeholder discussion during the two-day workshop, and the commitments expressed by the management teams of Cambodian and Myanmar SEZs, left some participants feeling hopeful that, through sustained collaborative and transparent efforts, SEZs could have the potential to set an example for decent labour practices.