“The plan was always to keep moving up”, 39-year-old Ae Ae Phyo Aung tells Team Ceritalah, her English clear and precise. “That’s why I went to work in Doha and Dubai.”
After two three-year stints in the Middle East, Ma Ae (“Ma” means “Ms” in Burmese) now works as a housekeeping supervisor in a local five-star hotel.
Ma Ae first started work, (as a 20-year-old back in 2000), as a marketing employee for the Yellow Pages. She had just finished high school and needed to help her father support her two younger brothers. Two low-wage jobs later, she joined the hospitality industry, slogging away at a budget hotel while pursuing distance education.
Then, in 2004, she moved to the Sedona Hotel, her first five-star establishment. She knew at once that this was what she wanted to do: “The hotel industry always provides a high standard of service. And the people there are often educated well.”
From the Sedona—like many Myanmar nationals—she then headed overseas. Her first stop was Qatar in 2006, returning to Yangon when her father passed away in 2009.
She then left for Dubai in 2011 before coming back for good five years ago. She saw each top-tier hotel as a steppingstone, enhancing her pay, experience as well as future prospects until she secured her current job.
In a country that only just raised the minimum wage from MMK3,600 to MMK4,800 an hour (roughly USD2.50 to USD3.20), there is a stark divide between the luxuriousness of her working environment and the harshness of everyday life in Yangon.
But for Ma Ae, hotels and their tourism lifeblood have been a lifesaver, providing her with the means to clamber out of poverty and hardship into a more prosperous future.
Even though working women are frowned upon in Myanmar’s society, she earns an impressive equivalent of USD300–400 per month, compared to a more common USD100–200 for many in Yangon (the city’s average wage is USD200).
Moreover, in a city where most married women do not work (Ma Ae’s own mother was a housewife), she makes more than her laundry supervisor husband does. Twelve years younger, he only just achieved his rank recently. His income of about USD250 pays for the necessities while hers goes to savings and some nice-to-haves.
According to 2017 statistics from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), only 50.5% of Myanmar’s females participate in the labour force, in contrast to 85.5% of males. This is low in comparison to other Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia (52.5% of women), Malaysia (54.8%), Thailand (59.8%), Singapore (60.7%) and Vietnam (72.7%).
Indeed, going out to work in a conservative Buddhist nation has been a quiet triumph of sorts for Ma Ae. Not only has she been able to secure financial independence, but she has also been actively saving – setting aside money for the past one-and-a-half years.
In another year or so, she hopes to be able to afford the down payment for a flat in North Dagon, a much nicer neighbourhood 20 kilometres away, where a humble apartment of 600 square feet starts at USD10,000.
Mae Ae starts at 8:30am. She manages a team of fifteen people and a typical workday involves attending meetings with managers, inspecting the quality of the rooms (standards always need to be kept up) and signing reports.
She is committed to ongoing education for her staff and pushes them to take English classes three times a week: “It is important because our customers are almost all European.”
“The work is exhausting but I like it,” chirps Ma Ae. She enjoys having more responsibility in her new role and is constantly planning for the future, hoping to become assistant manager within the next few years.
But being a working mother isn’t easy. The opportunity cost of moving up the ladder is less time spent with her family. Every morning, she buys her daughter, Thada, breakfast and then drops the child off at her mother’s, before heading straight to work. The only other time spent with the girl are a few precious hours at night.
Whereas previously, Ma Ae had no problems travelling abroad to where the best opportunities are, she now chooses to remain in Yangon as it has better education and healthcare for her daughter.
She doesn’t mind her long hours as she feels that it is necessary to secure a better future for her family and herself. When asked what was most important to her, she answered simply, “I want to have a house or a flat, and I want my baby to go to private school.”
Team Ceritalah said goodbye to her on the quiet street on which her small apartment block is located. She closes the metal gate to the stairwell and checks that it is locked before heading up, exhausted but satisfied after a non-stop day at work and eager to see her family.
Ma Ae’s quiet strength and determination are evident. With kindergarten and a new flat just a year away, her goal is crystal clear — “For me, I hope that one day I can be like those at the top.”
While many have criticized tourism – especially in ‘conflict’ nations- there’s no denying the positive impact and benefits for local communities.
But most importantly and as Ma Ae’s story shows, tourism can transform lives – especially for women and other disadvantaged people – in even the most difficult countries.