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In Burma, the Solidarity Center supports union efforts to expose the government's criminal and systematic worker rights violations, promote and protect migrant worker rights, and sow the seeds of democracy.

Burmese villagers seek fresh water following Cyclone Nargis.

For decades, the Burmese military junta has violated worker rights and harshly repressed union activity. Dozens of union activists languish in jail. The Federation of Trade Unions of Burma, an affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation, is treated as an illegal organization. The ruling military junta in Burma engaged in such egregious and widespread use of forced labor that the International Labor Organization, which sets worker rights standards worldwide, called it a crime under international law.

Neighboring Thailand’s economy depends on a constant influx of Burmese migrant labor. An estimated 2 million migrants work in Thailand. In the border town of Mae Sot, more than 100,000 migrants work in garment production and other light manufacturing, construction, fishing, domestic service, and agriculture. Even though migrant workers are officially covered by Thai laws and regulations, their rights are regularly violated. They receive extremely low wages—often lower than their Thai colleagues standing next to them on the production line. Employers intimidate and threaten them, and they are attacked and even killed for daring to speak out. They may be deported back to Burma to face criminal charges or a life of misery. They are also vulnerable to human trafficking and forced labor. And they have little or no redress through social services or the legal system.

In September 2007, the Burmese regime’s brutal repression of public demonstrations laid bare its cynical announcements of a “road map” toward democracy. Soldiers shot at monks marching peacefully, killing dozens and injuring hundreds more. Thousands of protesters were arrested, and more than 300 leaders were handed lengthy prison sentences—up to 20 years. Working with other civil society organizations, the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma provided active support. The FTUB also built union capacity in ethnic areas and generated information worldwide on economic conditions in Burma.

In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed an estimated 130,000 people in the Irrawaddy Delta. With the military junta restricting international assistance, diverting emergency supplies to sell for a profit, and setting up only a few model refugee camps for propaganda purposes, grassroots civil society groups, including the FTUB, stepped in to provide relief. Drawing on established networks inside and outside Burma, the FTUB quickly distributed more than $250,000 of emergency food, medicine, blankets, water purification tablets, and other vital supplies.

The FTUB’s primary mission is to build a democratic union movement within Burma while defending the rights of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand and India. Its immediate priority is to consolidate the cooperation that developed among pro-democracy groups during the relief efforts, at the same time expanding outreach efforts to include broad swaths of the population outraged at the inaction and incompetence of the junta. Recently, the FTUB held its first national Congress, where a key feature was the reaffirmation of the federation’s commitment to end military rule and introduce democracy in Burma. Union representatives from Southeast Asia, Asia-Pacific countries, Europe, and North America attended the historic Congress. It was marred, however, by the arrest of five FTUB members on their return home to Rangoon. After a concerted international campaign, the five were released on April 10, 2009.

Interview: Labor, Business Must Partner for Ethical Investment in Burma. December 3, 2012—Political transformation is happening fast in Burma, but social and cultural change are just beginning—putting the country at a key tipping point for how it ultimately will be structured, says Pyi Thit Nyunt Wai, general secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma (FTUB).

Exiled Burmese Trade Union Leader Returns Home. September 12, 2012—More than two decades after a violent military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators forced thousands of Burmese activists into prison or exile, Maung Maung has returned home.

Blog: In Burma, a Moment in History for Unions. By Timothy Ryan. August 2, 2012—What a difference four months can make. When I first went to Burma in January of this year, some of the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma (FTUB) labor activists I met with were too worried about security forces to meet me in public.

Burmese Migrant Workers Double Their Wages after Strike. May 23, 2012—More than 500 migrant workers on the Thai-Burmese border took collective action to demand that their employer improve wages and working conditions in a garment factory where they were earning less than 25 cents per hour for an 11-hour shift, according to reports.

Democracy Activist Aung San Suu Kyi Meets with Burmese Migrant Workers and Solidarity Center Partner Organizations in Thailand. June 1, 2012—In her first visit outside her home country since 1988, Burmese democracy activist and member of parliament Aung San Suu Kyi visited migrant worker communities in Samut Sakhon Province, where 300,000 of Thailand’s estimated 2.5 million Burmese migrant workers live.

Burmese Trade Unions Fail to Find a “Safe Place” to Organize. February 10, 2012—Workers in Burma, also known as Myanmar, are well under way to building independent trade unions in multiple sectors.

After Two Decades of Darkness, a Daybreak in Burma? February 3, 2012—The Solidarity Center's Timothy Ryan spoke recently with Aung San Suu Kyi about the future of a democratic labor movement in Burma.  


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