Many domestic workers endure abject pay and conditions in Myanmar. One social business is arming the workers with skills for a better future. Words by Brittney Tun. Photos by Ye Myat Tun, YMT Productions.
Win’s story started like that of many farm girls from rural areas in Myanmar. Her family pulled her out of school after fourth grade to save money and assign her to household chores. Then, as a teen, she was sent to work in a factory.
“A lot of my relatives are factory workers, but I chose to be a housekeeper,” she said. “I don’t like factory life. You get to wear nail polish and make-up, but at the end of the day you are too tired to cook your own dinner or clean your house.”
Born in Ayeyarwady Region, Win “never had a good employer,” she recalled. “They always pushed me and abused me. My previous employer set really long hours and paid me only 30,000 kyats per month.”
Three years ago, Win secured an opportunity that would change her life. A family of expats her employer was renting to in Yangon noticed her and asked if she could help them occasionally. Win’s employer agreed. “[My employer] could not pay me well,” she said, “but they supported me to go earn more money with my new family.”
Not long after hiring her, the family invited her to work for them full time. “I’m scheduled to work 9 to 5 every day, but I choose to work longer hours for them because they treat me like family. They never pressure me, and I have no stress. I cook only four days per week,” she beamed.
Win, who is in her 30s, had little experience in cooking before joining the family, but she soon proved adept. Recognizing her talent, the family sent her to Three Good Spoons, a ‘decent work’ initiative for domestic workers founded by Alison Carter, a former Australian diplomat in Beijing. Alison moved to Myanmar with her husband over three years ago and quickly saw a way to fulfill her dream of developing a social enterprise benefitting women.
Alison created the program to service those new at employing domestic workers and concerned about being fair around their employees’ pay and conditions. “Also, they wanted reassurance that the people they were paying to do this kind of work were preparing meals with care and had the skills to be able to do their jobs well,” Alison said.
Alison employs a small brigade of bilingual locals to run the classes. Assistant coordinator Bridjit (or Thwe Moe Thu) is in training to be the program director and Kevin Monin, former private chef to the American ambassador in Myanmar, runs the kitchen and creates local and international recipes for the students.
The program offers a variety of cooking courses for residents, tourists, and domestic workers. Win has been through 36 Three Good Spoons classes, each about three hours long and covering hygiene, grocery shopping, nutrition, food storage, and cooking among other areas. She possesses a repertoire of more than 100 recipes.
The next stage in the development of Three Good Spoons is a program geared to reach out to the domestic workers themselves, not just the families who hire them. Alison plans to roll out an affordable membership program of very low-cost classes to foster an impromptu community among domestic workers. In the past, she worked with The Yangon Kayin Baptist Women’s Association, but now is trying to expand partnerships with organizations such as the Myanmar Mobile Education Organization in order to travel to factories and offer free hygiene and sanitation classes.
An education that is relevant to their lives and job-oriented would not only benefit individual women, but would influence their families through the generations.
“There is a recognition among my Three Good Spoons clients to support women in improving their skills so that they can improve their earnings and improve their livelihoods,” Alison added. “We believe that women can be very influential within their families.”
Win went from a monthly salary of 30,000 kyats three years ago to 350,000 kyats. “I can afford to take care of my father’s hospital bills,” she said proudly. After her new employer put her through a nursing program, she began to help a local clinic at night.
“If you have knowledge, you don’t even have to go out of the country to find a good job,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if your employer is good or not. You must be good. Don’t steal, have morals, and keep your faith.”