2 May 2014edge review

Photo: Workers at a garment factory in Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone (Alex Bookbinder)

Myanmar labour rights have improved, but fear, insecurity still define workplace

Strikes may be commonplace in industrial settings around the world, but until very recently, they were exceedingly rare in Myanmar. From 1962 to 2011, independent trade unions weren’t allowed and public protest was only legalised in December of that year.

While occasional bouts of labour unrest occurred before the new Labour Organisation Law was passed in October 2011, they were routinely met with heavy crackdowns by the security services, with their leaders often facing stiff jail sentences.

Since early 2012, however, workers across the country have banded together and stood up against abusive employers on a scale unseen in decades, marking the resurgence of a labour movement that was once among the strongest in Asia. But organised labour in Myanmar is still subject to significant restrictions, and the movement has few allies in government, meaning that achieving fundamental protections for workers is unlikely to occur for a long time.

According to U Maung Maung, general secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (FTUM), there are now 1,044 registered trade unions across the country. He claims the climate for organised labour is much better than it was in 2011, but continued restrictions imposed on unions by the labour law “are preventing vertical growth and restricting collective bargaining.”

A report published last year by the Yangon-based Labour Rights Clinic (LRC) highlighted a number of problematic stipulations in the law, including a requirement that township-level registrars approve the formation of unions, in contravention of guidelines set forth by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Furthermore, the law requires public-sector workers to give two weeks’ notice before striking, although private-sector workers need only inform their employers three days in advance.

Collective bargaining, which is handled by a mechanism known as the Workplace Coordination Committee, intentionally limits the number of representatives from both sides that are able to take part in negotiations. “The law… includes unclear and confusing definitions, the absence of key components of collective bargaining and… the lack of effective enforcement mechanisms for implementing decisions of the relevant arbitrary council,” the LRC report says.

Despite this, unions in Myanmar have considerably more freedoms than their counterparts in neighbouring countries. Naypyidaw’s newfound tolerance for limited dissent has prompted exiled labour activists – including Maung Maung – to resume operations at home.

“We formed [the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma] in 1991, along the Thai-Burma border,” he said. “Together with the international trade union movement, we initiated a commission of inquiry [in conjunction with] the ILO regarding systemic violations of forced labour and child soldiers by the [military government].” When his organisation moved back inside Myanmar, it changed its name to reflect the nomenclature preferred by the country’s government.

As exiles have returned and the ILO has deepened its consultation with the government, priorities have shifted towards improving the lives of workers, at a time when Myanmar’s manufacturing sector is taking on new economic importance.

According to Sit Aung, an independent strategist who helps unions formulate their negotiation strategies with the government, there have been roughly 200 strikes since January 2012. Still, fundamental labour protections are a long way off, he argues.

For the thousands of workers who toil in Yangon’s 13 industrial zones, daily life is a struggle for survival. Basic manufacturing salaries are the lowest in the region, hovering between US$25 and $32 a month, according to the LRC report. Most workers labour 11 hours a day, six days a week, and even working this much they cannot make ends meet. “Bonuses and overtime can account for as much as 60 per cent of a worker’s take-home salary,” said Sit Aung. “They pay more for overtime, and award bonuses for perfect attendance. If workers take a leave of absence for one day, they will cut a quarter of their expected pay. It’s a huge gap.”

He and his allies in the Myanmar Labour Union Network, a loose coalition of unions, have petitioned the government to implement a basic wage of 5,600 kyat (US$5.80) for an eight-hour work day, in keeping with the cost of living in the city. But he says he feels the government is unwilling to press the issue, because it is wary of encouraging wages to rise to a level that would discourage investment in Myanmar’s emerging light manufacturing sector.

Parliament recently passed a bill calling for the establishment of minimum wages, which would vary by state or region. The specific amounts have not yet been determined, but the government hopes to have them in place by the end of the year. “Some wages [will increase], after the government sets a minimum wage, but they’re still missing the point,” Sit Aung said. “What workers will make is still not enough to survive on.”

Workers are routinely docked pay for eating on the job, taking bathroom breaks, and not wearing approved uniforms, among other things. While the right to unionise is enshrined in law, union members are routinely harassed or fired for their activities. Sit Aung singled out factories owned by Chinese, Taiwanese and South Korean companies as being the worst for harassment and violence against workers, claiming that Japanese-run factories are comparatively better.

The extremely low pay earned by Myanmar’s industrial workers means that even small deductions for disciplinary reasons can mean the difference between being able to support oneself and being forced to borrow money from predatory lenders, establishing a cycle of debt that is difficult for the working poor to break out of.

After three years of economic and political reforms, Myanmar is currently experiencing a “gilded age,” with a tiny minority of the population enjoying extreme wealth, while the vast majority toil in abject poverty. Those in control of the commanding heights of the economy have historically shown little sympathy for the plight of the poorest, so it is perhaps no surprise that Myanmar’s nascent labour movement has next to no political traction on the national stage.

In a bitter irony, activities of the parliamentary committee entrusted with establishing laws to protect workers have inadvertently resulted in some union members being persecuted by their employers. “The Workers’ Affairs Committee in parliament asked unions to provide them with data on wages and working conditions, and some union leaders were fired after they did this,” Sit Aung said. “[Parliament] didn’t protect them. Just because there is new FDI (foreign direct investment), it doesn’t mean workers’ rights are respected.”

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