Research on SEZs and the Garment Industry

Special economic zone (SEZ) development in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) has been expanding in recent years. Designed to capture foreign investment and accelerate regional economic integration, three SEZs were being established in Myanmar at the time of writing, along with roughly 30 in Cambodia, 10 in Thailand, and over 30 in other GMS countries. The garment industry, a prominent labour-intensive industry within the subregion, is operating in these spaces. SEZs, offering investment privileges, quality infrastructure, and weakened labour protections, are attractive locations for garment manufacturers seeking low production and labour costs. Although women represent the majority of the sector’s workforce, they are often concentrated in the lowest-paying positions with the least recognised skills. The challenges that women workers face are compounded when they are also migrants, as migrant workers experience unique vulnerabilities. Within the GMS, manufacturing production in SEZs increasingly hinges on both internal and cross-border migrant labour. 

MMN and Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, jointly implemented a research and advocacy project from 2016 to 2019, investigating labour and migration issues in Mekong SEZs through a gendered lens. Guided by the question of whether the jobs being created within these zones are promoting decent work for women migrant workers, this study developed four case studies of SEZs: Thilawa SEZ (Yangon Region, Myanmar), Phnom Penh SEZ (Phnom Penh, Cambodia), Manhattan SEZ (Svay Rieng Province, Cambodia), and Tak SEZ (Tak Province, Thailand), with a particular focus on the garment industry.

MMN Project Partners

  • Legal Support for Children and Women, Cambodia;
  • Future Light Centre, Myanmar; 
  • Foundation for Education and Development, Thailand; 
  • Labour Rights Promotion Network, Thailand; 
  • MAP Foundation, Thailand; and
  • Yaung Chi Oo Workers’ Association

Key Activities

Based on agreed research strategies developed during periodic consultation meetings, MMN project partners surveyed garment factory workers across the four study areas from May 2017 to July 2018. 700 respondents completed a questionnaire – 200 each in Yangon, Tak, and Phnom Penh, respectively, and an additional 100 respondents in Svay Rieng. In Yangon and Phnom Penh, where garment factories are clustered in peri-urban industrial areas outside of SEZs, the questionnaire was carried out with workers employed both inside and outside of the SEZs in order to compare workers’ experiences. Between July 2018 and February 2019, in-depth interviews with select women garment factory workers, along with key informant interviews with representatives of governments, SEZ management committees, employer associations, factory owners, trade unions, and civil society organisations (CSOs), were conducted in each location. 

Based on the results of an analysis of the study’s primary data as well as a thorough literature review, four key themes emerged as requiring special attention in order to realise decent work for women migrant garment factory workers in Mekong SEZs. These areas were: working conditions, labour organising, skills development and recognition, and care work. The impact of SEZ development on workers’ mobility was also highlighted in an analysis of these themes. The research findings were presented in a publication entitled, Jobs in SEZs: Migrant Garment Factory Workers in the Mekong Region, which was published in July 2019.

In recognition of the rapid expansion of Myanmar’s export-oriented garment industry and the subsequent need to better understand the challenges facing workers in this sector, MMN and the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) co-hosted a workshop and network exchange on 15 and 16 January 2018 in Yangon, Myanmar. On the first day, 21 representatives from Yangon-based trade unions and CSOs, as well as nine people representing trade unions and organisations from Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Indonesia, India, Thailand, and the Netherlands, gathered to participate in the MMN/CCC Garment Worker Labour Rights Workshop. By means of interactive presentations, group discussions, and activities, participants exchanged information on the key challenges facing garment factory workers and labour rights activists in their countries as well as strategies used to promote and protect the rights of these workers. 

On the second day, six trade union and CSO representatives from Korea, the Philippines, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Norway joined the previous day’s participants for the MMN/CCC Network Exchange. This meeting carved a space for Myanmar unions and organisations to share information on the garment industry in Myanmar, the challenges being faced by Yangon garment factory workers, and the interests and priorities of unions and labour organisations. The meeting provided an opportunity for Myanmar organisations to better understand the workings of the MMN and the CCC respectively, as well as develop partnerships with like-minded groups in other countries. To learn more, please read the website report of these meetings.

From 12-14 December 2018, the MMN Secretariat; MMN project partner, Future Light Centre, Myanmar; and AIT facilitated a civil society consultation and multi-stakeholder dialogue meeting in Yangon, Myanmar. The objectives of the civil society consultation meeting were: 1) for MMN, FLC and AIT to share preliminary findings and proposed recommendations from research conducted on the working and living conditions and life choices of women garment factory workers in Thilawa SEZ; 2) for CSOs and trade unions to share their feedback on these preliminary research findings and proposed recommendations; and 3) for meeting participants to exchange ideas on effective advocacy strategies that aim to protect and promote the rights of Thilawa SEZ garment factory workers. During the next day’s multi-stakeholder dialogue meeting, various stakeholders, including government departments, Thilawa SEZ Management Committee, CSOs and trade unions, shared their perspectives on the opportunities and challenges of ensuring decent work for Thilawa SEZ garment factory workers following a presentation by FLC on the preliminary findings and proposed recommendations. The meeting provided a forum for various stakeholders to discuss a way forward for the development of Myanmar’s SEZs that protects and promotes the rights of workers.

From 20-21 June 2018, representatives of the Myanmar, Cambodian, and Thai governments, Thilawa SEZ and Phnom Penh SEZ management committees, employer associations, UN agencies, Asian Development Bank, and CSOs gathered in Bangkok to hear research findings and recommendations from MMN and AIT’s report, Jobs in SEZ: Promoting Gender-Sensitive Policies in the Mekong Region, and to discuss what SEZs can and should do to promote opportunities for decent work for women migrant workers. The multi-stakeholder workshop framed the dialogue around the themes of labour migration, working conditions, labour organising, skills training and recognition, career development, and care responsibilities, with an overarching focus on labour within SEZs and the garment industry in the Mekong. The workshop took place in the form of a dialogue. In each panel, findings from the study were presented, followed by comments from various stakeholders and open discussion. To learn more, please read the press release of the workshop.

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