THE BLOG

Hope for Myanmar: From Sweatshop to High Street

05/04/2016 08:40 | Updated 05 April 2016

Imagine being too scared to ask for a bathroom break at work. Or working in 38 degree heat without safe drinking water. Or being locked in, forced to live in fear of fires or other accidents.

On a recent trip to Myanmar, I spoke to Su Su Hlaing, a young woman for whom this was a daily reality. Su Su Hlaing told me that when she was young, she dreamt of being a teacher. But when the recent economic problems started, she had to find a job in the garment factories to support her family. I met her in their dormitory room where she lives and sleeps in what can only be described as slum-like conditions. She shares the room with three friends. The room was spotless, with pictures of Myanmar pop stars and a black-and-white photo of their parents on the wall. But there was no escaping the smell from the open sewer outside.

The young women, just four of the 300,000 garment workers in Myanmar, work up to 11 hours a day, six days a week. The clothes they make for some of the high street's biggest brands are almost certainly in your wardrobe, although the women themselves can't afford to buy them.

While the brands make enormous profits, the workers who produce the clothes are paid as little as $2.80 a day. As Su Su Hlaing and her roommates told me, half their salaries were spent on their accommodation and what was left over was not enough for their families to live on.

Their story, remarkable in its ordinariness, is just one of billions of examples of how our global economy works to further the interests of those who already have at the expense of those who do not.

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The young women I met don't live in 'extreme' poverty. They earn more than $1.90-a-day, the official global line for who is in extreme poverty. But they are living, breathing, human proof that hardship does not end when people move above an income level chosen in the World Bank offices in Washington DC.

My visit, in my role as an ambassador for the organisation, was to bear witness to the struggles of some of those 3.6billion people in the bottom half.

Take a look at how the fashion industry works and you can begin to see how this staggering reality has come about. It is a global industry that has pioneered driving down costs, putting huge pressure on suppliers and workers, whilst driving huge profits for those at the top. Many high street brands won't even reveal which factories in Myanmar produce their clothes. Why would a company want to keep its factories secret, unless it had something to hide? It is surely not beyond the realms of human wit to come up with a better system, one in which people could still get rich but we could wear our clothes with a clean conscience. One in which workers would be valued, paid enough to lead healthy lives and treated as human beings.

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Not that the women I met sitting there feeling sorry for themselves - far from it. They and their colleagues have come together as part of a worker's rights organisation to campaign for better work conditions, learning from counterparts in Thailand, Cambodia and elsewhere. Their humour, resolve, optimism and dignity were humbling.

Today's inequality can seem overwhelming but it simply isn't. There is no need for such obscene levels of both poverty and wealth in the world. Indeed, in the long-run extreme inequality is counterproductive even for those on the wealthy side of the divide.

Paying workers a decent wage is a huge part of tackling inequality. Poverty wages, coupled with huge rewards for those at the top, are one of the big causes of today's inequality crisis. Poverty wages are not just unfair, they are economically self-defeating. It was Henry Ford who famously put up the wages of his workers so they could afford to buy his cars because he saw that this was what would make the economy grow.

Living wages are important but just part of the solution - we also need public investment in the schools, clinics and infrastructure that help people escape poverty and help poor countries grow. I have campaigned for a number of years for a Robin Hood Tax on the financial transactions of banks and other financial institutions that would raise hundreds of billions of dollars to help tackle poverty and climate change.

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The appeal of such a tax lies in its popularity with the public, the fact it targets a sector that both contributes towards inequality and is currently under-taxed and the neatness of asking those who caused the economic crisis to help repair the damage it inflicted on ordinary people from Yangon to Yeovil. That's why 10 European countries are pressing ahead and why the idea is gaining increasing traction in the US.

Similar arguments support the urgent need to tackle tax avoidance by multi-national corporations and rich individuals - an activity that deprives governments in countries like Myanmar of billions.

According to Adam Smith, the rich "should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion." Too often today the reverse is true. It is time to change this.

Despite the hardships I saw, I left Myanmar convinced more than ever that positive change is possible. An amazing country with deep traditions and culture, it is on the precipice of enormous change. Myanmar has finally given itself the chance to move on from a long, benighted history of oppression, sadness and conflict - a history in which Britain's colonial rule played a significant part. A country that has just sworn in its first civilian president after historic, free and fair elections. The task now is to ensure that change at the top results in improvements in the lives of people like Su Su Hlaing. That will require action to fight inequality, in Myanmar and across the world.

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