Living from hand to mouth : lived experiences of construction workers in Myanmar
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Since the 1990s, Myanmar has significantly changed as several economic reforms have begun to open the country’s market to international investments. Along with globalisation, rural–urban dynamics have become stronger through the growing labour force participation of rural persons in urban wage work. New construction activities in cities have been a major source of employment for many poor people. However, the majority of Myanmar people continue to live in deep poverty, and the livelihood of construction workers who have contributed to economic growth through their labour remains behind the scenes. In this regard, this study aims to document the lived experiences of construction workers through a quantitative and qualitative empirical investigation, to enable their realities to be acknowledged. Based on four periods of fieldwork from 2002 to 2013, this thesis analyses how individual workers became construction workers, their experiences of being construction workers, and their prospects for building sustainable livelihoods. In this study, construction work is considered a source of livelihood rather than employment, which refers only to paid jobs and does not include social or cultural aspects. The scope of the study was limited to masonry work in building construction, in which both men and women work in Myanmar, in order for gender perspective to be included in the research. The analytical approach to understand lived experiences of construction workers was based on the interactive relationships between global-local context, livelihood and people’s agency, which were investigated through an intersectionality perspective. The study reveals that the majority of the construction workers were rural migrants, because entry into the sector was relatively easy. The process of informalisation through subcontracting work marginalised the workers, and the predominance of dependent consciousness among them may have been the result of the circumstances in which they had to work in order to survive. The increasingly repressive character of their livelihood contexts is revealed in connection with formal institutions (which provided neither basic social benefits nor law reinforcement services) and informal institutions (such as culture and social practices), as well as workers’ limited experiences with organised forms of resistance and their lack of an efficient civil society. Here, I demonstrate that construction work was not only a livelihood strategy, but also an asset accumulation strategy. However, construction work never uplifted the workers from poverty, as they earned only enough to cover their cost of food, and employment was irregular. Furthermore, workers were prone to unemployment, sickness and accidental injury at work due to a lack of workplace safety measures. As their accumulated assets were not sufficient to cover the costs of accidents or poor health, cycles of indebtedness often contributed to their poverty. In such situations, social networks were particularly important for the workers’ daily survival and crisis management. Including skilled workers, the majority of the construction workers felt that the work attributed them with low social status. The workers described their lives as let-hloat-let-sa (‘hand to mouth’). Furthermore, the marital and extramarital relationships among workers, the migratory nature of the work and workers’ migrant status in the city made their social context vulnerable. It was common for female construction workers to experience sexual harassment by male co-workers. Women also suffered because the indigenous concept of hpoun prohibited them from certain tasks at work, such as working above men. As a result, women were paid less than men, and only employed as unskilled workers – even if they could do skilled tasks. However, through the forces of globalisation, some women were able to become skilled workers. Workers’ routes to sustainable livelihoods commonly involved learning skills in order to become self-employed construction entrepreneurs. However, access to skill development and training involved complex power relations. In particular, the paternalistic relationship between construction workers and their employers, the power hierarchy determined by the positions individuals occupied in an organisation, the disciplinary power exerted through regulations and routine, and the workers’ agency power through righteous indignation (ma-khan-chin-sate) and self-discipline were the most essential elements in relation to workers’ desired livelihood outcomes. Methodologically, the intersectionality perspective helped to elucidate how the lived experiences of individual construction workers, in relation to their intersecting identities, varied. The study concludes that the poverty of construction workers will remain in the years to come, and that there cannot be a way out of poverty that does not entail better working conditions and basic social security services. The study also argues that there is an urgent need to improve the gender gap in the working conditions of Myanmar women. By demonstrating how the poor achieve a livelihood based on masonry construction, the study provides a new impetus to the debate over smallscale enterprise in the informal sector and the role of small-scale enterprises in minimising poverty in Myanmar.