Danish Ambassador Mr. John Nielsen took the time out recently to talk to Mizzima TV about the importance of improving occupational safety and health for workers in Myanmar ahead of the World Day for Safety and Health at Work on 28 April 2019.
Mizzima TV Editor Myo Thant talked with the Danish Ambassador to ascertain the importance and depth of this crucial part of building Myanmar’s competitiveness and how it will not only benefit workers but will also the companies and their exports.
Why is it so important for Myanmar to scale up its efforts in regard to safety and health at work?
First of all, I would like to thank you for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to talk about an issue that is becoming more and more important as Myanmar is progressing towards a more open market economy. I think what is important is to say that occupational safety and health is good for all parties involved. It is good for the workers, if you can improve their rights and their working environment. But it is also good for the companies to get healthier workers because they will improve productivity and their ability to export to the EU. It therefore also good for the Myanmar economy. So it is a win-win situation.
Why is it important to the EU that Myanmar pays attention to occupational safety and health?
The EU today is the third biggest export market for Myanmar and especially from the garment industry export has increased a lot. If you look at the EU today, you will see that the consumers are increasingly asking for purer goods, but they also looking at whether working conditions in the place of production follows international standards. European consumers are actually willing to pay more for products if they know they are produced with due regard to occupational safety and health.
Would it not be easier for everybody, companies and employees, if there were no rules concerning occupational safety and health?
No, I don’t think so. It will be bad for everyone, because as I said before the consumers in Europe would not like to buy goods from countries where the working conditions are not good. There is an increasing awareness of that not only in Europe, but also in the US and many other parts of the world. Secondly, it is a duty to ensure that workers have good working conditions. And, thirdly, I think that if Myanmar wants to increase the productivity within many sectors, and if the country as such wants to increase the competitiveness of the economy, it will be necessary to improve occupational safety and health. Myanmar has been opening up to the world, and in that process where you are opening it up for new markets, where consumer interests are different from the market that you have traditionally exported to, Myanmar will have to try to understand these markets and the consumers’ concerns. In that sense, I think the competitiveness of Myanmar depends on whether you can do something to improve the situation for the workers in the country. This is something the EU since 2013, through the SMART Myanmar programme, has been working on with a view to ensuring that local companies are increasingly in compliance with the general standards for occupational safety and health.
Furthermore, since 2014, the EU, US and Japan, the ILO and Denmark have been working with the government, employers and trade unions to enhance labour market reform through “the Initiative to Promote Fundamental Labour Rights and Practices in Myanmar”. You cannot see what is happening within the area of occupational safety and health without going into the broader issue of labour market reform, you have to have a comprehensive approach to this.
Is it expensive for the companies to comply with the rules for health and safety? How can it be an advance for the companies?
It could seem like it is not an advantage, but in the long run it is going to be an advantage if companies invest in this, because it is something that consumers in the markets to which Myanmar is exporting are concerned about. So if you want to ensure that you are able to export to these markets in the future, it will not only be about product quality, it will also be about under which conditions these products are being produced. Consumers in the EU will want to know where products they are buying have been produced, and under whicgh circumstances. There was a serious incident in Bangladesh some years ago within the garment industry, and that has prompted even more focus on corporate social responsibility and occupational safety and health. Many Danish and EU companies working in Myanmar are really concerned about these issues, because they know that back home their consumers want to know that the working conditions are good in the factories where we are getting their products produced.
For Myanmar, it seems to be difficult to raise awareness about occupational safety and health. How can this process be boosted?
It is going to be a long journey, I think, because you have to change a culture where this has not been prioritized. But as Myanmar is opening up its markets, you will have to change that mentality. I mean the companies have to see that it is actually worth investing in better working conditions, in healthier and safer workers because that will lead to increased productivity. It will also ensure a better competitiveness in the future because Myanmar companies will have to compete in the international market where the standards are set by the consumers in the countries they are exporting to. But it is going to take a long time. It will need a lot of changes. The EU and its Member States stand ready to support Myanmar in this field through the projects, initiatives and technical assistance we have already launched.
What are the Danish activities in this field in Myanmar?
The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a project on Strategic Sector Cooperation in Occupational Safety and Health and Social Dialogue where we are supporting the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population build up capacity to promote and enforce occupational safety and health in the government’s own occupational safety and health inspectors who are the ones who make checks at the companies to make sure the working conditions are in order. The Danish Working Environment Authority is training the inspectors and we also have a dedicated advisor at the embassy who is working on these things. As I said before the EU is through the SMART Myanmar Programme promoting compliance with occupational safety and health standards.
Can you tell us a bit more about the SMART programme?
Since 2013, the EU funded SMART Myanmar programme has provided recommendations to Myanmar factories and companies to strengthen their compliance with social standards and improve working conditions for the workers in the companies. As far as Denmark is concerned, we are also supporting what we call social dialogue or the tripartite dialogue between the trade unions and the employers and the government on labour market issues. We have a kind of conciliation board in Denmark which tries to settle disputes related to labour market issues between the three parties, and we are also trying to work on this here.
How was Myanmar performance in terms of occupational health and safety over the last few years?
I think if you look back at where Myanmar came from and where Myanmar is today, quite a number of things have happened and I am very happy that the Occupational Health and Safety Law was passed by parliament in March this year. This is a very important step towards trying to put a lot more focus on the issues, and, as we talked about before, to change the culture of not focusing on that before. So I think a lot of things are happening on the issues, and we have had, both the EU and Denmark, a good relationship and cooperation with the Minister and the Ministry on Labour, Immigration and Population and the trade unions and employers on this. So in that sense, I think Myanmar is moving forward but there is a long way to go. We also have to recall our own history because we are where we are today after many, many years, even decades of work trying to improve occupational safety and health. This is going to take a long time, but as we look back over the last eight to ten years in Myanmar things are progressing in the right direction, not fast, but moving forward. I am not just talking about the law, I am also talking about the changes in the labour market as such and other labour laws that are in progress. I hope that these laws, once they are passed by parliament, will live up to ILO conventions and international standards because that would be a huge step forward for the Myanmar economy.
So you say Myanmar is proceeding in the right direction. What is your message for employees, employers and the government?
I think it is important to strengthen the tripartite dialogue and make sure it is a dialogue between all parties. You cannot just go ahead with labour market reforms and make progress if you do not have a dialogue with all labour market parties. The labour market consist of three parties and you have to have all three parties involved in dialogue all the way to ensure the necessary agreements and compromises about where you are going and how you are going to do it.
What would you say is positive about the state of occupational safety and health in Myanmar?
It think it is very important for people to understand that it is a right for workers to have proper working conditions and I think that it has taken some time, especially for many companies, to understand that it is not only about competitiveness, but also about ensuring the rights of workers to have better conditions at their workplace. And at the end of the day this will lead to improved productivity. We see that from our experiences in the EU, that if you improve the working conditions you also in many cases raise the productivity, which at the end of the day is a benefit for the companies.
What is the most important point in raising occupational safety and health at a company level?
I think the most important is that there is a dialogue between the workers and the company on how to do these things because some of the companies cannot invest overnight in long-term improvements for workers. But initiating a dialogue that was not there before is very, very important. This is not easy because many of the companies we are talking about are not necessarily Myanmar companies. They are also from other countries and cultures so it is not easy. But the new Occupational Safety and Health law also introduces the possibility of setting up occupational safety and health committees at company level where the workers and the employers can talk together, which, if implemented, could be very important for the future development of the labour conditions here.
The EU and Denmark have the SMART programme and other programmes here in Myanmar. Why do you implement these projects and what are the difficulties in doing that?
I think it is very difficult when Myanmar comes from a situation eight to ten years ago where there was no awareness about these problems. No one was discussing working conditions and Myanmar did not have an open economy or a perspective on what good working conditions could actually mean for the country’s economy. So moving on from there to a situation where Myanmar has to compete in an international setting and market, where Myanmar’s products have to be scrutinized, whether they are coming from companies that living up to general human rights standards, ILO labour standards, is a huge task. It takes a long time and as I said before you have many countries producing here which makes it even more difficult. But I think if you look at the broader perspective over the last eight years, Myanmar is advancing at a reasonable pace. And what I feel is important is that we see a willingness on the part of the government to progress in this area. Also the trade unions are interested in progressing in this area as are the employers, so there is an environment for moving forward, but it is going to take a long time. As I said before, this has taken decades in Europe, it has taken decades in the US and in many other countries. So this is nothing that is happening overnight. The first step on the path has been taken and that is very important. That is why the introduction of the Occupational Safety and Health law has been a very important step forward in this area.
What barriers to you see in ensuring occupational safety and health in Myanmar?
It is very difficult. It takes a long time. You have to overcome a situation where companies have to understand the advantages of ensuring occupational safety and health. Also the culture of talking together, the culture of dialogue, the culture of creating confidence between the workers and the employers was not here before. Now you have to move from such a situation to a situation where you have to, as part of the new law, initiate such a dialogue in the companies and that will take a long time. It is easy to make a law but the next step is the implementation of the law and that is where you can actually see whether what has been done over the last couple of years is actually going to be effective. But it will take time.
How do you view the future for Myanmar in terms of implementing occupational safety and health?
I think we were talking about the culture that companies are not used to working on these issues. You are also dealing with a mixed group of international companies being present here which does not necessarily share the same values about everything, so that is a barrier that will also have to be overcome. I mean the law is very important in that sense because it sets out general regulations for all companies, notwithstanding the country they come from, but I mean the path forward is dialogue. It is dialogue between employers and the workers, and it is dialogue between the employers, the workers and the government. That is where you find the progress in the future. And if you can have such a dialogue, then I am very optimistic about developing this area in the future.
What would be your message on this to the people of Myanmar?
I would say that, first of all, it’s a right for the workers to have good working conditions. That’s crucial, that’s essential, that’s part of their rights as human beings. Secondly, it is good for Myanmar, it is good for the economy of Myanmar if you can increase the productivity, if the companies can increase the productivity through better, safer and more healthy working conditions. That is a win-win situation for the companies, the Myanmar economy and for the workers. It is a very important step forward and it is very important as Myanmar is opening up its markets to the world.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would like to thank you for giving me this opportunity on behalf of the EU and EU countries to mark the World Day for Safety and Health at Work (April 28). This is the day where we are raising awareness of occupational safety and health. It is a good opportunity to talk about developments in this field in Myanmar. I think a lot of things are on the right track. There are still a lot of issues which must be addressed in relation to the labour market in Myanmar. I know laws are being prepared and it is very important that they live up to international standards. But again Myanmar has come a long way in a very short time and this is going to take a long time.