2015
06.15

Changing pace.  About a Burmese saying.  Observations about work and pay.  About taking baby steps exploring Mandalay.  What would Marx say?

There is an idiom in the Burmese language that refers to the time between noon and 3 PM.  It goes something like:  The time when no feet walk.  Listen to the locals, I can only say!   I think I need to adopt this strategy if I want to survive.  Perhaps I will even extend the saying by 2 hours until 5 PM… Mandalay is hot, but I hear Bagan, my next bigger stop, is even hotter this year around.  For now though, I have grounded myself in Mandalay.  I will not move on until that fever is gone.  I am waiting.

In Mali two years ago that’s exactly the schedule I had: up between 5 and 6 AM, walking or sightseeing until 10, at the latest 11 AM and then rest until 4 or 5 PM.  It worked then, it should work now.  However, I noticed that the Burmese don’t always follow their own advice at least not when it comes to people on the clock, especially poor ones.  Those porters I saw at the Golden Rock, construction workers I have seen — many of whom are young women doing hard physical “men’s work” labor — none of them seem to get 3 hours off.

In fact, bit by bit I am learning more about the pay scale in this country, and about labor conditions.  For example, my taxi driver, after paying off rent for his taxi to “his boss” and paying for gas, can make about $200 per month.  Compare that with a teacher’s salary of $150 per month.  But then the taxi driver pointed out that teachers can supplement their income by private lessons, as their job is over by 3:30 PM.  And they do so.  Fair enough.  When I heard that the girls working at the guesthouse are making $80 per month, I was appalled.  But then…  the most shocking reality check for me came from a conversation I had at the guesthouse back in Yangon with a woman who has worked in Myanmar for the last 8 years representing a glove-making company in Taiwan.

First off, she said that foreign investors pretty much are asked to leave their ideas about labor and working conditions they may have elsewhere at home, or else.  In other words, if you come with reform ideas, your investment is not wanted here!  You are welcome to exploit the system for maximum profit but you are not allowed to challenge it.  What she described was simply horrific:

Workers in the Industrial Zone of Yangon work 12 hour days with two food breaks.  There is no air conditioning, there is no sick time.  Meals are offered by the employer for 40 cents but most of the workers cannot afford that as they are making between $35 and $45 per month!  That calculates their hourly wage at pennies.  They bring lunch boxes containing little more than rice with a foul smelling fish paste…  They work even when they are sick, sitting there shivering and coughing…  They often live on the streets or near the Industrial Park as they cannot afford transportation to and/or from work.

And then she had a most incredible anecdote: her employer wanted to increase productivity and offered the workers a monetary incentive to produce more. People refused the offer with the explanation that if they worked faster they would start to make mistakes.  That was inconceivable to them.  So, they rather produced as much as before and voluntarily did not earn more!

Listening to her turned my stomach!  Now, the 12 hour shift, the relatively easy work with breaks and downtime for the girls at the guest house for $80 per month almost sounded reasonable.  But what does not sound reasonable no matter how wonderful Mama or others in her position are — she is taking in money hand over fist with her guesthouse and the wealth is not spread around.  She has 28 beds and collects between $10 and $25 for each.  If you calculate an average of 20 beds filled at $15 average (the reality is that she is nearly fully booked even now in the low season because of her excellent reputation), that makes $300 per day or $9000 per month minimum intake.  Now there are taxes, wages, and expenses to be paid, but I would not be surprised if not about half is hers after all that.  $80 vs. $4000.  Something does not add up, or is that just my old communist upbringing coming through?  I am trying not to judge, but I cannot help it.  In my world this is wrong.  But then, here I am, traveling in Myanmar. And no matter what, inadvertently I am supporting the system.  Should I have stayed away?  Would that make a difference?

I saw some wonderful sites today.  The Shweinbin Monastery of 1895, an incredible teak wood monastery and the Mahamuni Pagoda from 1784 with a most curious Buddha image completely bent out of shape because of all the gold leaves that have been affixed to it, for over 200 years.  But since labor and working conditions are the dominant topic for today, I will focus on two groups of workers I observed:

There was the gold leaf workshop demonstrating the gold-leaf making process.  In short:  It takes 4 guys a total of 6 hours of pounding a small 4×4 inch package with a 3 kg/6 pound hammer.  The starting point is a 20 foot long strip of gold about 3/4” thick.  The strip is cut by women into tiny squares which are bundled into 200 layers of paper and gold, wrapped into bamboo and beaten by the first guy until the small pieces have about quadrupled in size and decreased considerably in thickness.  The women then cut these 200 pieces into 6 pieces each and the process starts again.  But now 5 hours of hammering have to be done continuously.  It takes three guys to take turns for this part.  The final product is 1200 pieces of 2×2” of gold, so thin that they are practically worthless.  What these “pounders” do is incredible.  They have to pound not only at all hours of the day and at all temperatures, they also have to pound at a minimum speed which is measured by water clocks.  Each of them has to continue for a full hour before taking turns.  If that is not hard work, I don’t know what is!  Myanmar is the land of gold but I am sure that even these gold pounders are making less than $250 per month.  I will try to find out.

Not far from the Mahamuni Pagoda is an entire street filled with marble carving workshops.  The sound of chainsaws and power tools reaches far beyond its parameters.  The entire street is filled with fine marble dust.  The shops interspersed with the workshop are selling merchandise all covered in white… It is one thing for me to walk around there for 15 minutes and to look — it is another thing for all these men (cutting and carving) and women (polishing) to work there day in day out without even as much as a face mask!  But they do…

The government seems to show zero interest in its people’s working conditions or top down a minimum wage and/or minimum workers’ safety measures could be put into place.  Why is there so little interest?  Workers such as these are not just dispensable ants.  They are people and they are the foundation of any functioning country.  Boy, would Karl Marx have his hands full in Myanmar!

And so ended my first 3 hour excursion.  Back to bed.