The Women's Workforce, Yangon. { 17 images } Created 1 Sep 2014

717 women wait outside the gates of the Master Sport Shoe Factory in Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone, Northern Yangon. For two months they've watched the same metal warehouse, behind the same locked gates, and the same patrolling security. Some crouch on the dirt beneath bamboo and tarpaulin structures, sheltering from monsoon rains or intermittent sun, or haggle over bunches of vegetables and herbs with opportunistic market sellers, seeing the encampment as fresh business. Others still sit on the split vinyl benches of the rusty Chinese buses that would transport them from home to work, and back again. Now they stare straight ahead, moving neither forward nor back. They say they'll strike as long as they need to.

Since the legalization of workforce unions two years ago, thousands of women are walking out of workplaces, striking, and demanding changes to their conditions. According to the Ministry of Labour Records, 959 Basic Labour Organizations have been set up since legalization, and the Department of Labour Records has recorded 447 garment worker strikes since 2012. In a patriarchal country that's historically weighted in favor of the male, the new laws seem to have placed industrial power firmly in the hands of the female laborers.

Women account for ninety percent of the workforce in the garment industry, itself accounting for forty four percent of total industry in the city. The Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association estimates that around 200,000 people, work within the garment factories. The average worker is female, twenty four years old, works six days a week, thirteen hours per day and is paid 80,000 kyat per month ($80). As international chains such GAP begin to take advantage of Myanmar's cheap labour these number will steadily rise.

Industry bosses blame politically motivated groups like the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society and the National League for Democracy for mobilizing strikes, and worry that they'll increase in frequency as the 2015 election approaches.

According to the Myanmar Investment Commission, foreign investment is five times greater every year, although many Western investors, especially in the United States, are shying away from financial integration unless the Myanmarese government can prove enforcement of the new labor laws it's passing. And as the country integrates into the Association of South East Asian Nations Economic Community (ASEAN) in 2015, it'll need to prove that it can uphold standard prerequisite labour laws necessary for membership.
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