Garment industry policies endangering pregnancies, women’s health

On her way home from work on 9 November, Phyo Ei Ei Khine began experiencing lower back pain.

It was not an altogether unfamiliar symptom, her workdays spent bent over a garment factory sewing machine often leaving her sore, but the pain and fatigue that particular day felt overwhelming.

Married for three years, she was five months into her first pregnancy.

By 2am that night she was up with severe abdominal pain. Pulling back the covers, she saw blood running down her legs.

At the hospital, doctors told her she’d had a miscarriage.

“They took the fetus away in a plastic bag. I didn’t want to look at it,” she recently told Myanmar Now, her eyes cast down to hide her tears.

Myanmar’s 2012 Social Security Law grants any employee registered for social security up to six weeks of paid medical leave after a miscarriage, and the 1951 Work and Holidays Act grants this same benefit even to those not registered for social security, though protections for day labourers and employees on probationary periods differ.

But two weeks later, Phyo Ei Ei Khaing was back at work.

The 22-year-old has worked at the KGG garment factory in Dagon Seikkan township for more than two years. She is among the hundreds of factory workers in Myanmar denied medical leave benefits and appropriate accommodations when working while pregnant.

Records from the Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar’s Women’s Workers’ Centre show that, since 2017, more than 100 women have asked for help after being denied leave following a misscarriage.

Female labourers work at a garment factory (Photo- Myanmar Now)

Phyo Ei Ei Khaing brought a doctor’s note to work after her miscarriage asking for her six weeks but was told her pregnancy had not lasted long enough to entitle her to maternity leave.

“It’s not like staying at home… I only bleed a little when I’m at home, but I bleed a lot more at the factory because, using the foot pedal, my lower body is always moving,” she told Myanmar Now at the worker’s union office in Dagon Seikkan township in early December.

It’s not just about discomfort. After a miscarriage, a woman is as vulnerable as she’d be if she’d just given birth to a live, healthy baby, and needs at least six full weeks of rest to recover, Khin Pyone Kyi, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at the Central Women’s Hospital in Yangon, told Myanmar Now.

Not allowing oneself to rest and fully recover leaves a woman prone to uterine infection and inflammation and fallopian tube damage, all of which can leave a woman infertile.

Eclampsia, a condition of dangerously high blood pressure that can cause seizures, is also a major risk following infection.

“If what’s inside is not taken out quickly and safely after bleeding begins, it can be life-threatening. Eclampsia is likely to follow after a miscarriage, when infection is always possible,” Khin Pyone Kyi said.

As of November, more than 560 factories employing more than 500,000 workers are members of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, according to the association, with most factories located in Yangon region, followed by Bago and Ayeyarwady regions. More than 90 percent of these workers are women, mostly of childbearing age.

Ma Than Than Nwe (L), who works at the Rainbow Soap Factory, and Ma May Wint Thu, who works at the KGG garment factory are seen at the workers’ union office in Dagon Seikkan Township on 8 December 2019. (Photo- Win Nandar/ Myanmar Now)

Working while pregnant

Phyo Ei Ei Khaing had informed her employer of her pregnancy as soon as she learned of it. She expected to be moved to a less physically demanding position as the pregnancy progressed.

A few days before miscarrying, a manager okayed a move but it had still yet to go into effect.

Her colleague May Wint Thu, 25, told her boss she’s three months pregnant and is similarly yet to be reassigned to lighter work. Instead, she remains in the sewing section, where she has to meet the same daily quotas as everyone else.

“The pregnancy makes me have to urinate more often, but I’ll only go twice while sewing because I’m afraid of missing my target,” she told Myanmar Now.

Female labourers work at a garment factory (Photo- Myanmar Now)

Than Than Nwe, 30, is also three months pregnant. For the last five years she’s worked at the Rainbow Soap factory in Dagon Seikkan Township, where workers recently protested for better pay and for less labour-intensive work for pregnant women.

She was moved to a position applying stickers to the boxes of soap she previously had to lug around.

“They used to ask pregnant workers to drive heavy machinery when drivers didn’t show up. Now, they don’t dare ask anymore,” Ma Than Than Nwe said.

Several workers told Myanmar Now commuting to and from work while pregnant was itself one of the most difficult obstacles.

The factories arrange Dyna trucks for workers but the trucks are especially uncomfortable for pregnant women, and they negotiate Yangon’s rough roads poorly.

The trip from 29-year-old Aye Mon’s home in the Kyauktan township village of Yon Thapyay Kan to the Fu Yuen Garment Co Ltd factory in Dagon Seikkan township, where she works, requires a bumpy, four-hour truck ride. And because the road between her village and the nearest major road cannot accommodate cars or trucks, her journey starts and ends each day with a twenty-minute ride on the back of a motorbike taxi.

Female labourers leave work at garment factories in Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone (1) on the evening of 5 December 2019. (Photo- Mung San Aung/ Myanmar Now)

Five months after becoming a permanent employee, she miscarried. She was two months pregnant.

She believes her commute killed her pregnancy.

But the factory gave her just one week of emergency leave, saying she was ineligible for additional benefits. Under the 2012 Social Security Law, a worker must pay into social security for six months and must be employed with a company for at least a year before claiming benefits. The 1951 law, however, still entitles her to six weeks paid leave.

After using up her week of emergency leave, she later had to spend another five days in the hospital when increased bleeding followed her return to factory work.

“I applied for and got one more week off, but my pay was cut,” she told Myanmar Now at her home.

Day labourers and workers still on probationary periods are not entitled to pregnancy-related leaves, including during labour and delivery, leading many to conceal and ultimately endanger their pregnancies.

Female labourers leave work at garment factories in Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone (1) on the evening of 5 December 2019. (Photo- Mung San Aung/ Myanmar Now)

Hnin Ei Hlaing, 30, has worked as a day labourer at the Myan Yi garment factory in Hlaing Tharyar township since July 1, where she sometimes has to carry or move heavy garment bags.

She never told her employers she was pregnant, hoping to work through her probationary period and become a full-time employee.

Just 16 days into the job, she miscarried.

She took some painkillers and returned to work the next day.

“My back ached. I couldn’t sit up because of the stomach pain for a few days after the miscarriage, and I bled so much my whole house smelled like blood,” she told Myanmar Now.

Know your rights

Myanmar Now repeatedly reached out to officials at the Myan Yi, Phuoung, KGG and Rainbow factories but all declined to comment. Each has faced accusations of denying women proper time off after miscarrying.

Workers’ complaints, if found credible, can shut factories down, said Aye Thaung, chairman of the Garment Manufacturers Association.

“(Factory owners) can be charged if there is concrete evidence they’re denying entitled leaves. Because workers pay social security fees, they can file complaints at the workers’ office,” he told Myanmar Now.

Female labourers work at a garment factory in Yangon. (Photo- Myanmar Now)

Once a worker has contributed six months worth of social security payments they are automatically registered and entitled to all benefits even if they haven’t yet received a physical social security card, according to Maung Maung Aye, director general of the Social Security Administration.

“If your employer denies you benefits, tell your township office. The township office will call the employer,” he said. “Workers have legally protected rights.”

Even so, Myanmar Now found several pregnant workers in December that were unaware of these rights.

In a survey of 67 garment factory workers in Hlaing Tharyar, Shwepyithar and Dagon Seikkan townships, roughly three quarters of respondents were unaware that women are entitled to paid time off after a miscarriage.

More than half of the 54 women surveyed said they were worried about getting pregnant while employed and about a third said they were prepared to quit if they did.

The Social Security Board does provide education on workers rights in industrial areas, but the subject still remains poorly understood, Maung Maung Aye said.

Either way, after losing her first pregnancy, Phyo Ei Ei Khine said she’s too afraid to risk getting pregnant again anytime soon.

“I will have another child, but not for years. I’ll keep working now then quit before deciding to have another child again,” she said.

Related Articles

Back to top button