Business, Finance & Economics

Labor Laws Strengthened in Myanmar, But Workers Still Struggle

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Workers at the Esquire shoe factory apply chemical treatment to shoes. Factory employees have run into hurdles trying to organize. (Photo by Neena Pathak.)

Myanmar is changing.

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In June, the International Labor Organization lifted all restrictions on trade and investment in the country. The Myanmar Investment Commission says foreign investment in the country is five times greater than what it was last year.

And as the demand for labor increases, workers are beginning to organize for better working conditions.

Kyu Kyu Win sits on the floor of her kitchen eating a bowl of watery rice porridge. It’s all she can eat these days because of stomach problems. Problems that might have something to do with her work as a labor organizer.

Last May, the Ministry of Labor polled factory workers about working conditions. Kyu Kyu Win was collecting the surveys at Esquire Shoe Factory, where she works.

“The survey asked 39 main points, like what is the daily rate with or without overtime, are the bathrooms clean, do workers have the freedom to form a union, is there any repression by the factory to the workers,” she explained.

She took the completed surveys from her factory to the Ministry of Labor. And when she got back, her boss called her into the office and fired her. According to Kyu Kyu Win, he said it was because she left work without permission. But Kyu Kyu Win is also a union leader, actively involved in labor organizing. 

The boss fired four other union leaders at the same time even though they hadn’t left the office.

The women, all in their 20s, are not alone in organizing around labor rights.

All over the country, workers have staged demonstrations, like one in Yangon, complete with protest signs and call-and-response chants. Shockingly, perhaps, workers have been protesting in support of the government.

Two years ago, legislators passed the “Labor Organization Law,” which legalizes labor unions for the first time since 1962, when a military coup left many Burmese citizens without basic democratic rights.

Kyu Kyu Win and the other organizers formed their union in the summer of 2012. They had been attending labor rights workshops at a sparsely furnished office commonly known as The Reading Room.

“We know a little bit about the law so we know about our rights. If we tell other people, other people will ask for their rights,” she said.

In May this year, 144 workers at her factory went on strike in support of the five women who were fired. The strike lasted about two weeks. The strikers demanded the women get their jobs back. They also wanted the right to organize without persecution. They wanted higher wages and more respect from their boss.

With the help of an arbitration council, all of the workers were hired back in early June.

The factory manager, Kwanbok Song, says the whole thing was just a misunderstanding, and that the workers don’t really understand labor law. And he says the employees who claim he violates labor laws and works them too hard are just plain wrong.

“What I want from them is different from what they want from me,” he said. “Only 10 hours working, it’s not hard work. (And) if they think it’s a lot of work, they should change their attitude. Look at Bangladesh or Cambodia. In China if you ask them to work on Sunday, they would be happy.”

Kyu Kyu Win and the other organizers were happy to get their jobs back. But Ross Wilson says it’s rarely that easy. Wilson works at the International Labor Organization’s office in Myanmar.

Wilson says it’s great that the new law has been passed. But, to some extent, its shortcomings have inspired this recent wave of protests. He says protection against dismissal and discrimination are still weak.

“There are no effective penalties against employers who fail to comply with reinstatement orders from the arbitration bodies and the arbitration council. It’s frustrating the members of the arbitration council, who are putting their time in to make what they consider to be fair decisions. It’s incredibly frustrating for the workers. Because they have no alternative,” Wilson said.

In the meantime, Kyu Kyu Win is still advocating for the worker’s rights. She’s worried about losing her job because of her union work — but not worried enough to stop organizing.