The Solidarity Center, which provided assistance to exiled Burmese union leaders, continues to work with Burma’s growing trade union movement as it expands workplace training for union members, shares strategies with union counterparts in neighboring countries and assists Burmese migrant workers through legal and social support networks.
|Tens of thousand of Burmese workers migrate to Thailand (above) and other countries to support their families. Photo: Jeanne Hallacy
From 1962 to 2011, Burma, also known as Myanmar, was ruled by a military junta that suppressed nearly all dissent and wielded absolute power in the face of international condemnation and sanctions. The generals who ran the country were accused of large-scale human rights abuses, including the forcible relocation of civilians and widespread use of forced labor, including children.
The Federation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (FTUM), an affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), was treated as an illegal organization and its leaders lived in exile in nearby countries. During the years of repression, the FTUM defended the rights of Burmese migrant workers in Bangladesh, Thailand and India and built a foundational network inside and outside Burma for a democratic union movement. In 2012, FTUM General Secretary Pyi Thit Nyunt Wai, known familiarly as Maung Maung, returned to Burma after 24 years in exile.
In 2011, Burma passed new labor laws that allow the creation of unions, with a minimum of 30 members. Within weeks of the laws’ passage, groups of woodworkers, garment workers, hatters, shoemakers, seafarers and other trades, including agricultural workers, registered openly as trade unions, and now there are more than 1,000 registered local unions.
The government also has embarked on an ambitious economic, political and governance reform program. As a result, Myanmar's economy grew at 7.3 percent in 2012-2013. Despite this recent positive economic performance, 26 percent of people live in poverty and 32 percent of children under five suffer from malnutrition. Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in East Asia and the Pacific, with an estimated per capita gross domestic product of $868 in 2012-2013.
To support their families, tens of thousands of Burmese workers migrate to neighboring countries seeking employment in garment production, construction, fishing, seafood processing, domestic service and agriculture, and are vulnerable to human trafficking and forced labor. They have little or no redress through social services or the legal system. Neighboring Thailand’s economy depends on a constant influx of Burmese migrant labor and even though migrant workers are officially covered by Thai laws and regulations, their rights are regularly violated.
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.