In the world of apparel sourcing, the search for the 'next big thing' is a constant one. Even as recent developments, especially with regards to social compliance, lead to an increase in the valuation of stable, long-term partnerships with key vendors, the fact remains that the very nature of the apparel industry (and fast fashion in particular) is such that there will always be a need to look for new suppliers, and in today's global economy, buyers can - and do - look all over the world. One place they've been looking at with increasing attention over the past year or so has been Myanmar, which is just emerging from a long period of economic confinement due to Western sanctions imposed as a result of human rights violations while it was under military rule (which officially ended in 2011).
I had the opportunity to visit Myanmar earlier this year, and it was an incredibly interesting experience. This is a country whose period of isolation very neatly coincided with the rise of the idea of social compliance, so they have truly been'out of it' with regards to the entire conversation of codes of conduct, social audits, etc. As a result, local factories - meaning those owned by local businesspeople - tend to pay close to zero attention to social compliance, and look like throwbacks to the kind of production facilities that led to the rise of the social compliance industry in the first place (although, in all fairness, from the little I saw - I visited 3 factories while over there - this was more a function of lack of knowledge than of any actual intent to run a sweatshop; for example, while the factories had little in the form of safety measures, there was no indication of the workers themselves being ill-treated or abused).
In contrast, the factories being set up by foreign investors (mostly mainland Chinese) are coming in forearmed with knowledge of the importance of social compliance and experience with the relevant practices that entails. As such, those factories are starting off significantly ahead of the local curve (and one unit I visited was really quite good; perhaps not entirely up to WRAP standards, but appeared to have the potential to get there without too much difficulty).
In addition to factories and their owners, I also had the opportunity to meet with local industry leaders and others working in the social compliance and development arenas. It was quite evident from all these meetings that the apparel industry as a whole is pretty much at the bottom of the learning curve with regards to social compliance, and faces many other broad, institutional challenges, including infrastructure, both physical and financial; the banking system is very poorly developed, and it is very difficult for Myanmarese factories to send money outside the country to pay for materials, etc. (side note: there still does not appear to be a definitive answer on the correct adjective; while the country itself is being referred to as Myanmar with increasing consistency, there remain many – including locals – whose use Burmese when needing the adjective form).
Taken all together, one can easily imagine a risk of Myanmar seeing a bifurcation in the garment industry, with compliance concerns causing local factories to be increasingly unable to compete with factories set up by Chinese and other outside investors, leading to a scenario somewhat akin to Cambodia, where the industry is dominated by foreign owners using the local labor pool (which would bring with it a whole slew of additional challenges, as we are witnessing in Cambodia these days). As more and more of those foreign-owned factories get set up, I expect we'll start seeing units that would deserve a WRAP certificate (we already have two such facilities currently participating in the WRAP program). However, the local factories will need a lot of help to get to that level, with plenty of work to be done on the education and development side.
WRAP is certainly committed to providing that help, and we are already working with local organizations on this front. Initially, our focus will not be as much on certification as it will be on education, and in our conversations with those local partners, we have emphasized our training programs and our willingness and ability to invest as partners in helping increase awareness of the importance of compliance and providing the tools to develop the necessary practices. We have direct resources in the immediate area - with Yangon only about an hour's flight from Bangkok, where WRAP's Director of SE Asia, Bart Seliger, who was with me during my visit, is based - and anticipate plenty of additional visits in the weeks and months ahead (in fact, Bart was recently back there, accompanied by WRAP's Vice President of Training, Stuart Webster).
Myanmar is a beautiful country with a long and rich heritage, and some of the most incredible Buddhist temples I have ever seen in all my travels. One hopes that its apparel industry will be able to develop a long, rich and socially responsible heritage in the years to come.
WRAP’s President & CEO Avedis Seferian
& Director of Southeast Asia Bart Seliger at the
Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar