BANGKOK, Thailand — If you’ve got a pair of tattered, grunge-era Levi’s, check the tag. If it reads “Made in Myanmar,” you’ve got a relic from a time when US apparel makers were still willing to do business in Myanmar (also called Burma) and risk condemnation for colluding with ruling despots.
A lot has changed since 1992, the year Levi Strauss closed Myanmar operations while announcing it wasn’t possible to do business there without “directly supporting the military government and its pervasive violations of human rights.”
Now, as a reform movement nudges Western sanctions towards the dustbin, Myanmar appears primed to compete with other Asian nations on the come-up (think Bangladesh and Vietnam) and start churning out American clothing brands en masse.
This is almost inevitable. Stitching clothes is highly repetitive, low-pay work that gravitates to poor countries. Myanmar, located between China and India, hits all the right strategic and economic notes. In fact, the country already has a sizable industry that was gutted in 2003, the year American trade embargoes criminalized shipping clothes to the US.
Myanmar is among the poorest nations in Asia. And when extremely poor countries attempt to pull themselves off the ground, they often have little else to offer but dirt-cheap wages and unskilled masses desperate for steady jobs. That’s why garment stitching is, in the words of Japanese researcher Toshihiro Kudo, the “first rung on the industrialization ladder.”
Expectations are high, he writes, that garment stitching will become this ascendent nation’s “driving force” in the manufacturing sector.
So if you buy cheap threads from H&M, The Gap or any of the other brands that already source clothes from impoverished reaches of Southeast Asia, expect “Made in Myanmar” to reappear in your closet in the very near future.