Farmers ponder future as labour flees Print
Tuesday, 27 May 2014 02:54

Ko Htay Lwin, like 70 percent of Myanmar’s working population, was employed in agriculture. He earned K3500 a day as a labourer in the fields around Bogalay village in Ayeyarwady Region, tending the rice crops that feed Myanmar and make up a substantial portion of its economy.

But Ko Htay Lwin left behind the paddy fields for Yangon’s construction sites. Agricultural work is notoriously seasonal, and it could be months between employment stints in the fields, but work in Yangon’s booming construction sector brings higher and steadier pay.

“I don’t want to go back to my village to make money,” he said. “I now earn K5500 a day in Yangon, but my wife also has a job earning K4000 at the same site.”

Ko Htay Lwin is one of a growing number of farm labourers giving up on life in the regions for the draw of the big city. And as Myanmar’s economy booms, more and more people are drawn by Yangon’s higher salaries, leaving the agricultural industry short of experienced workers.

U Thein Aung owns 50 farmed acres in Danuphyu town in Ayerwady Region. He said the exodus by labourers from his town has increased in scale over the last few years.

“In 2012, maybe 25 percent of farm labourers moved to another area, but by 2013 half of farm labourers had disappeared,” he said. “Since the beginning of 2014, I’d say 75 percent are gone.”

“Farmers with their own land are getting further into debt. How can they find labourers to hire?” he said.

U Thein Aung raised his wages from K70,000 to K100,000 per month over the last two years, but still is having trouble finding labour.

“During the beginning of the growing season, farmers had to make do with fewer labourers. But when it’s time for paddy transport and harvesting, it’s very hard to find the right amount of labour,” he said.

Farmers have faced labour shortages since 2011, but it has accelerated this year, according to U Thein Aung, chair of the Freedom Farmers League, which claims 400,000 members in Ayerwaddy, Bago, Yangon, Mandalay and Sagaing regions.

Cyclone Nargis in 2008 caused devastation in Myanmar’s prime rice growing regions, heavily disrupting farmers and placing downward pressure on wages as farmers struggled to cut costs and rebuild their businesses, he said.

Many labourers were unable to survive on the small wages provided by farmers, and consequently left for urban areas and potentially more lucrative jobs as vendors or construction workers, particularly as economic activity sped up in the cities following the reforms of President U Thein Sein.

Up to 3 million Myanmar people also left for neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Malaysia.

Farmers say they are adapting to new labour realities, and are looking for solutions to these shortages.

U Soe Tun, secretary of the Myanmar Rice Federation (MRF) and chair of the Myanmar Farmer Association (MFA), said he thinks increased mechanisation can take over for the labour shortage.

Although more use of machines like tractors and combine harvesters can boost rice farming, there are a number of hurdles.

“The main requirement to make mechanised farming a success is financing,” he said. “At present there’s no organisation providing proper support to farmers to buy machinery. But farm labour shortages are becoming a bigger problem for the country.”

An MFA survey showed that 80pc of Myanmar farmers have small-scale tractors at a cost between K550,000 and K2 million. But they are lacking combine harvests, used in harvesting and threshing, which can significantly reduce the amount of labour. Combines often sell for a minimum of K25 million, however.

Many farmers have made the move to mechanisation by selling their cattle and oxen. With one animal fetching K1 million, a sale of a cow or oxen is often enough to buy a cheaper tractor and settle debt. Although tractors are relatively cheap, it would take selling 25 cattle or oxen to purchase a combine, meaning a different method of financing combines is generally required.

The MRF and MFA will set up 18 farm machinery centres in the country as part of its plan to increase mechanisation, but U Soe Tun said the centres alone will not be enough to affect nationwide change.

“We need effort from concerned stakeholders like the government to make mechanised farming a success,” he said. Although U Soe Tun has no doubt the future of Myanmar’s farming is mechanised, he said he does not know how long it will take to achieve.

Women also traditionally make up a large labour pool in rural areas, though they are increasingly finding urban work in factory jobs and the garment sector.

“Farmers are seriously suffering from a labour shortage,” said U Soe Tun.

U Thein Aung said farmers are looking for adequate, long-term lending and low interest rates to buy machinery. Current rates are often too high and terms too short to enable equipment purchases.

A number of attempts to push for mechanised farming took place in the past, though they were not entirely successful for a number of reasons.

U Soe Tun said that as long as labour was abundant there were few reasons to mechanise. “Labour is becoming rare and expensive, and cattle became scarce after Nargis. Farmers need more machinery, and that requires adequate financial support to be successful.”

Source: mmtimes