Almost two years ago, Khin Myat Noe Swe had to make a tough decision. Faced with dwindling work opportunities in her village of Shwathit, Magwe division, she could either keep working on the family farm, relying on seasonal work for minimal income or move to Yangon, the booming metropolis to the south where her friends had told her there were jobs to be had in the city's hundreds of garment factories.
“I thought about it for a week, then I chose to come to Yangon,” she said.
Now 20, she's been living and working in Hlaing Tharyar, the industrial area in northeast Yangon home to some 300,000 garment workers, ever since. She can look back and smile about that period of her life now but admits that at the time, she was frightened.
Her initial experience of Yangon was marred by setbacks. Two of the first factories she worked in subjected her to terrible working conditions and she chose to get out of there quickly. Both factories, notorious amongst the industry, have since changed their names in an effort to rebrand.
Life outside of work offered no respite for Khin Myat Noe Swe. For the first two months she had to share a 10 x 10 foot room with four complete strangers in a filthy worker's hostel.
These initial experiences of life in the big city took their toll on her and when depression set in, she contemplated moving back to the family farm. That's when she discovered Thone Pan Hla, a women-only garment workers association which serves as a vital support network for women like Khin Myat Soe.
Thone Pan Hla started as “some women having a discussion sitting around on the floor” back in 2012, it now boasts over 2,000 active members and has a growing reach of over 10,000 women garment workers according to Helen Gunthorp, Director of Business Kind, the not-for-profit organisation that initiated and provides support for Thone Pan Hla.
Thone Pan Hla's growth has followed the same trajectory as Myanmar's burgeoning garment industry which has exploded since international sanctions were relaxed in 2011 after the long standing military junta made way for a reformist, nominally-civilian government. In 2015, it was worth US$1.65 billion but with the democratically-elected civilian National League for Democracy-led government looking to establish the garment sector as an attractive destination for foreign investors and local job seekers alike, it is expected that in a decade, the garment industry could be worth US$10 billion and employ 1.5 million workers.
A business for change
A tiny fraction of these workers will end up employees in one of Business Kind's social enterprises. Gunthorpe, an infectious disease specialist, founded Business Kind in 2008 to improve the living conditions of poor people by providing them with essential products and services. Business Kind's first business, GoodSleep Bed Nets, is a small but successful operation based in Hlaing Tharyar. The de-facto garment factory produces mosquito nets that retail in supermarkets all over the country with profits returning to workers and thousands of bed nets being donated to families in need. It is now the highest retailing bed net product in Myanmar.
“Business Kind isn't interested in creating souvenirs or trinkets, we focus on products that are responsible,” she said.
GoodSleep Bed Nets became profitable within its first year but it was a few years later, that Gunthorpe and Thandar Ko, Myanmar Country Director of Business Kind, created Thone Pan Hla.
“It was an easy step for us to say 'we can do more now'. We are a women's organisation and we know these women so we need to make a club,”Gunthorpe said.
If GoodSleep Bed Nets are Business Kind's signature business, then Thone Pan Hla is its signature service. Thone Pan Hla was created in early 2012, just before the relaxing of international sanctions had begun to take full effect on the garment industry. Keeping in line with the organisation’s core values, it seemed like the next natural step, said Gunthorpe.
“We are the garment industry,” said Gunthorpe, with an ironic burst of laughter.
“Everyone knew the garment industry was going to explode and we knew there were going to be women flocking to these new jobs,” she said.
This prediction proved correct. With ample opportunities for stable, year-round employment in the garment factories, thousands of young women like Khin Myat Soe are choosing to brave it on their own, leaving the security of their families in Myanmar's rural areas for the major industrial centres like Hlaing Tharyar.
New migrants to Yangon, particularly women, are vulnerable when they first arrive and can find themselves being taken advantage of, whether that be on the factory floor or being lured into prostitution, said Gunthorp. When young women have to face tough life decisions they need to know a support network is there, she added.
“We don't tell them what decisions to make but we give them the tools they need to make that decision, and if they do make a wrong decision then we make sure they're safe,” said Gunthorpe.
These tools come in the form of education. From the beginning Thone Pan Hla has run skills training courses for its members, inviting guest speakers to come and educate the women on sexual health, worker's rights and leadership skills.
In 2013, Thone Pan Hla received a donation from a Swiss supporter and used the money to create Thone Pan Hla house which has become the embodiment of the organisation. The two-story house in Hlaing Tharyar has an 18-bed all-women dorm upstairs and a kitchen and open area downstairs where Thone Pan Hla hosts its educational seminars and their weekly Sunday Cafe.
With women garment workers often working 12 hour days, 6-7 days a week, Sunday Cafe offers a safe space for new women to come and meet other garment workers and for Thone Pan Hla members to catch up with friends on their only day off as well as providing them with facilities to cook meals and do their washing. On any given Sunday, the house is full with women just happy to be relaxing together with the sound of giggles and shrieks of laughter wafting onto the street.
Kyin Myat Noe Swe has lived in the dorm at Thone Pan Hla house, reserved for those women in need of most support, for one yearand said every week she looks forward to Sunday's so she can be with her friends.
This, said Gunthorpe, is the most important aspect of Thone Pan Hla.
“They are worked to the bone all week and they know on Sunday they can come to their house and they're there for each other to talk about each other’s problems,”she said
The changing landscape
Thone Pan Hla has never been and never will be a political organisation. Since the TheinSein government started reforms in the wake of a military rule where unions were banned and activists were harassed and often put down, laws on labour rights have been in a state of flux in Myanmar. The garment industry is trying to evolve in order to land lucrative international clients whilst maintaining profitability.
“The garment industry, at the moment, is one industry that tries very hard to comply with national laws,” said Khine Khine Nwe, the secretary general of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA).
In January 2015, the MGMA developed a garment industry Code of Conduct (CoC) with EU-funded SMART Myanmar Project, the first of its type. The CoC includes the International Labour Organisation Core Conventions and has been tailored to fit in with Myanmar's existing labour laws.
“We told the factory owners that we were going to adopt a home grown CoC and that it wasn't going to be easy but there was a consensus amongst them that that is something we need,” said Khine Khin New.
With the Code only being voluntary, implementation is proving a challenge but it’s a major step in the right direction, she added.
The rapidly changing nature of labour laws in Myanmar means that being up-to-date with and teaching this information to the women can be difficult but Thone Pan Hla ensures all women understand the basics.
“It's important for them to know that they deserve a decent job and they deserve respect, that they know how to find correct information and how to pass it on to your sister so that it's correct, we don't want to start rumours,” said Gunthorpe
The fact that Thone Pan Hla doesn't take an active role in the political side of labour rights advocacy doesn't detract from their influence. Every Sunday, the women talk about the conditions at work and share this information with each other, this then spreads outside the walls of Thone Pan Hla house and onto the factory floors.
“They all know what the good and bad factories are so if someone comes to Thone Pan Hla with a story about what's happening in a factory, this information will spread. And people come to Thone Pan Hla women because they are leaders, if you have a problem you come to them,” Gunthorpe said.
Despite its evolution over the years, from its humble beginnings to an association which has a reach of thousands of women garment workers, it has been only this year when Thone Pan Hla has felt it has gained traction, and there are no plans to slow down yet, said Gunthorpe.
Some major developments lay ahead with the expansion of Thone Pan Hla to Sunday Cafe 2, funded by SMART Myanmar project, and the opening of KindStitch, a new Business Kind social business that produces modern style dresses using traditional Myanmar fabrics that will ensure that Thone Pan Hla becomes financially viable.
For Thandar Ko and Gunthorpe it is seeing women like Khin Myat Noe Swe grow and then pass their knowledge on to others is evidence that Thone Pan Hla is fulfilling its mission.
“These women, they're empowered, they've advanced. Now they have control over their emotional lives, who they are and where they're going,” said Gunthorpe.