The COVID-19 pandemic has put one of Myanmar’s biggest economic success stories into a tailspin. Dramatic growth over the past decade has catapulted the garment sector above natural gas as Myanmar’s biggest export earner – drawing in US$4.6 billion during the last fiscal year – and it employs more than half a million workers, 90 percent of whom are women. The first signs of looming catastrophe came in February, when raw materials from China began to dry up. This was followed in March by the mass cancellation of orders from the pandemic’s new epicentre, Europe, where most Myanmar garment exports are sent.

These shocks have resulted in large-scale layoffs as well as fewer opportunities for overtime pay, which is often crucial for making ends meet. In several cases, factory owners have fled without paying workers their salary, let alone compensation for losing their jobs. U Nyunt Win, director general of the Factories and General Labour Laws Inspection Department, told Frontier that, by the end of April, more than 60,000 factory workers were out of work and 175 factories had stopped operating, mostly in the garment sector.