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.

9 comments so far

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  1. Boy, that post sure rattled some cages! We know each other very well and I respect the way in which you always try to keep an open mind about the cultural differences of the places that you visit and similalry th

    at you are unafraid to speak out when you find something that is just plain wrong. But it is a JOURNEY of discovery that we share, not a certainty. As well as the usual selection of exotic destinations I’m heading off to Texas later in the year for Thanksgiving with friends in “Dixie” – a part of the world that somehow managed to turn back the clock fifty years earlier this week. Perhaps some of your interlocutors should turn their attentions closer to home.

    By the way: I’ve finished writing up my visit to the “Women Only Police Station” in Tamil Nadu, I’ll send a link on your e-mail

    Glad to hear the Katakala demon has released your intestines from her poisonous grip.


  2. Maybe the notion of fixing the gap between rich and poor is misguided. Perhaps, the goal should be to help the poor attain a more or less decent basic standard of living while providing the opportunity for the more enterprising ones, like your guesthouse mama, to better themselves economically while providing needed goods and services to society. Would Myanmar really be better off without mama’s guesthouse? Certainly not. She employs people who otherwise would not have a regular job, and she makes it possible for tourists to spend money in the Myanmar economy. Why is it wrong for her to make a lot more money than most of the rest of the population? Myanmar needs more people like her, not fewer. Foreign investors, too, provide jobs for the Burmese population, even if they pay more or less the going wages. They are contributing to the Myanmar economy. Would Myanmar be better off without them? Hardly. Poverty cannot be wished away, and it cannot be eliminated by a socialist government. Poverty can be ameliorated only be increasing economic activity, that is, by increasing the size of the pie; and the best way to do that is to provide opportunity and incentives for entrepreneurial activity. The goal should be equality of opportunity, not equality of result.

    • I really like the notion of equality of opportunity, Carl. Well put. To me this starts with an equality of access to education. And certainly, we in the US have loads of work to do. Not just Myanmar.

      • Equality of access to education is the most important aspect of equality of opportunity, and, perhaps the most important one which government programs can seriously influence, but it is not the only one. Government also establishes the legal framework which encourages and rewards economic activity. Other factors are important, but government has much less influence on them, such as the opportunity to grow up in an intact, educated family. What about the opportunity to be surrounded by a social community which is peaceful and which encourages professional advancement? There is a whole range of social, psychological and cultural factors which affect opportunity but which the government cannot much influence. This is not a question of money because there are so many examples of people who have made it despite poverty. Dr. Ben Carson is, perhaps, the most famous such example in our country today.

        • Interesting thing about Carson…while indeed he was born into poverty and was able to take advantage of some of the opportunities presented to him…my goodness, isn’t he running for president now…he is NOT willing to offer equality of opportunity to some groups. For example, he believes that marriage is ONLY between a man and a woman, and he does not support the right, shall I say the opportunity, for gay people to marry. He is not willing to allow gay people to have the same opportunity for economic benefit etc. in marriage that straight people have.
          Just sayin’.

          • Ben Carson is hardly alone in believing that marriage is a recognized union between a man and a woman. The vast majority of humanity has always believed that, and still does because that social unit has been the foundation of human societies. Homosexuals are not the only ones who are prevented from marrying under the traditional definition of marriage. Incestual marriage is also prohibited. Polygamous marriage is prohibited except in the Moslem world and parts of Africa. Children are not permitted to marry, except for many parts of the Moslem word. There is no reason why the small homosexual minority should have the power to impose their definition of marriage on the rest of humanity, just like the Moslem minorities in the west should not have the power to impose the right to polygamous marriage on the rest of us merely because they want it.

            • There is a vast and significant difference between gay people wanting the same marriage opportunity as straight people and Muslims wanting to impose Sharia on the entire world!

  3. PS: No snake temples today?…SHUDDER!!!

  4. Unfortunately, income inequality is a reality throughout the world, obviously even in the US though on a totally different scale than in Myanmar. Hillary has taken it as one of her campaign issues and talked about it quite a bit in her ‘campaign launch speech’. Boosting the middle class seems to be a rallying cry of most of the candidates…and even the Republican candidates have suddenly taken an interest in the disparity of income in this country. Ha…yeah right!! I’m sure the Koch brothers really give a damn about the rest of us!!!!!
    The talk is about the ‘opportunity gap’ with Americans stuck at their income levels. How a candidate once elected will deal with this issue is anyone’s guess. As far as I can see, the rich don’t take kindly to giving up their privileged positions…and it is they who can buy legislation in this country…probably in most countries. Yes indeed, Marx is probably roiling, not just rolling, in his grave. His Russia has stunning income inequality, with something like 100 billionaires holding 35% of the nation’s wealth. In the United States, the top 20% own about 80% of the wealth.
    Interesting that this issue has presented itself to you in such stark terms in Myanmar while here in the US where we have so much more it is also an issue. Power and money…money and power…the gap between the rich and everyone else is not a simple issue anywhere in the world. How can it be fixed? Leaves my head spinning!!!
    Glad you are taking it easy until you are totally well, which I hope comes very soon.