YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar has introduced its first code of conduct for the country’s apparel industry as the sector looks to improve working conditions and boost exports to the European Union and United States.
The Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association said implementing the code of conduct, which was set to be formally unveiled on Sunday, is an important step in bringing the country’s apparel manufacturing factories in line with the demands of Western buyers.
“Factories adhering to the full MGMA Code of Conduct will open themselves up to the massive influx of international orders coming from Europe and the United States who demand socially responsible manufacturing practices from their producers,” the group said.
The MGMA, which represents around 300 member companies, drafted the code with the help of officials from the EU-funded SMART Myanmar program. Launched in 2013, SMART works with the garment industry to improve production practices.
The 11-point code of conduct focuses primarily on labor rights and working conditions, two areas that are of concern to companies looking to the Myanmar market where labor standards remain low and a reputational risk of investing in the former military junta remains high.
The voluntary code calls for factory owners to adhere to a minimum working age of 15 and for workers’ ages to be confirmed prior to them beginning work. Despite the country’s transition to a nominally civilian government in 2011, the use of child labor is a persistent problem in Myanmar.
Young workers should be kept off night shifts, according to the code, and away from potentially dangerous environments, such as working with fabric-cutting machines or hazardous chemicals.
The code also urges the enforcement of the 44-hour work week that is stipulated under Myanmar’s national labor laws. The country’s legal framework does allow for overtime work with permission from labor authorities, but the code says factory owners should strive to reduce working hours per week to a maximum of 60, a number recommended by the U.N.’s International Labor Organization.
The MGMA said it hopes the code will help the industry become known “internationally for safe and ethical garment production” as it eyes greater access to Western markets since the easing of sanctions by the EU and U.S. starting in 2012.
Annual apparel exports to the U.S. have climbed from zero in 2012 to an estimated $20 million in 2014, according to MGMA figures. But exports to the U.S. are still a “minuscule amount” compared with what they once were, the MGMA said. In 2002, prior to the leveling of sanctions against Myanmar, garment exports to the U.S. accounted for more than 20 percent of the country’s entire national export revenue.
Exports to the EU are significantly higher, estimated at $400 million last year, more than double 2013 figures. Around a dozen factories in Myanmar produce primarily for the EU. Japan and Korea are the two biggest export markets for Myanmar-made garments, but the MGMA has forecast that exports to the EU will overtake these two countries this year.
In June, Gap Inc. revealed plans to produce apparel at two factories in Myanmar, making it the first American retailer of note to enter the market since the U.S. lifted sanctions.