OSH Profile: Myanmar


Myanmar is among the poorest countries in the world, ranking 148 th out of 186 countries and territories in 2014. With a population of 51.5 million, the country has a per capita GDP of $1,105 and a poverty rate of 37.5 percent, one of the highest in the region. Among ASEAN countries, Myanmar has the lowest life expectancy and the second-highest infant and child mortality rate. Less than one third of the population has access to the electricity grid, road density is low and information and communications connections are scarce. Moreover, ten percent of the country is projected to be affected by a potential sea-level rise of between one and five meters. The country therefore ranks among the world’s top countries most at risk from the combined effects of climate change.  Key poverty drivers include low labour and agricultural productivity, landlessness, extreme weather, poor infrastructure, limited market access, armed conflict and ineffective government policies.

A British colony for more than a century, the country declared independence in 1948. Representative democracy lasted until the military coup of 1962, which established a ruling council and held power for the next twenty-six years. The country’s economic situation deteriorated markedly during military rule, leading to mass protests and a further violent military coup in 1988. In 1990 elections, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 of 485 parliamentary seats, but the military refused to acknowledge the election results, imprisoning many NLD politicians.

Further mass protests in 2007, followed by a humanitarian disaster as a result of Cyclone Nargis, increased pressure on the regime for political reforms. Military rule was finally dissolved in 2011 and a civilian parliament established, although many top officials were former military officers. Thereafter, in the face of global pressure, a series of political and economic reforms took place, culminating in the November 2015 general elections, in which the NLD won a landslide victory. The new Government, led by President Htin Kyaw, took office on 1 April 2016, on a pledge to implement national reconciliation and improved living standards.  Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic leader of the democratization movement, will be state counsellor, a new position foreseen to be similar to that of prime minister.

The new Government has a strong mandate for reform, but faces a long list of critical priorities in a society with a long history of authoritarian rule and ethnic and religious conflict. However, strong public expectations for political, economic and social development provide an opening through which key policy reforms may be driven, including labour standards generally, and worker safety and health in particular. In her June 2012 statement at the 101st International Labour Conference, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the issue of youth employment and skills for young workers: “Vocational training links to job creation is imperative if we are to safeguard the future by giving our youth the capacity to handle effectively the responsibilities that inevitably fall to them one day which may not be that far away.”

The economy of Myanmar has been growing steadily, with an average GDP growth rate of 7.5 percent over the past five years. 11 The garment sector is seen as a potential driver for economic growth, with 2014 export revenues exceeding $1.5 billion, largely due to foreign investment. The economy remains over-reliant on the energy sector (which drives export revenue) and agriculture, and continues to base its industrial competitiveness on low wages.

The national development plan targets improvements in data and statistical collection, support for the agricultural sector, and infrastructure development.  However, an ongoing political transition and limited government capacity will likely slow the pace of economic reform.  A new minimum wage law will further spur needed foreign investment, but key development constraints include poor infrastructure, limited access to financing, low management capacity, low labour productivity and a shortage of research and development capability. 

A first step towards improving labour market data collection was that for the first time since 1990, a Labour Force, Child Labour and School-to-Work Transition Survey was carried out – with support from the ILO - in 2015. Almost 45 percent (9.6 million) of all workers aged 15 and older are self-employed.  The informal economy in Myanmar is very important, covering an estimated 75 percent of the workforce, with more than half of all workers over the age of 35 working on their own account. Over half of the labour force work in agriculture, forestry and fishing, and 72 percent work in rural areas.

Myanmar is predominantly an agricultural and rural country. About 70% of its population (51.4 million in 2014) live in rural areas and depend on agriculture, livestock, forestry and fishery for their livelihoods.  Myanmar has the highest percentage contribution to GDP by agriculture amongst mainland ASEAN countries.  Smallholders dominate agricultural production and agricultural value added per agricultural worker is estimated at $194, which is one-half that of Viet Nam ($367).  Agriculture is not an attractive option for youth as it is considered hard work with little return. Empirical evidence gathered shows that youth in rural areas are involved in farm work, road construction, rice mills, fish processing, potatoes chips and bean paste cottage industries among others. But the lack of better job opportunities, lack of interest in agriculture and low wages motivate youth to migrate to urban areas and neighbouring countries.  The National Action Plan for Poverty Alleviation through Agriculture (NAPA) recommends to design and implement a market-oriented vocational training and rural youth entrepreneurship programme to change the negative perception towards agriculture and control rural-urban migration.  Rural agriculture accounts for 36 percent of GDP.