Workers in Burma, also known as Myanmar, are well under way to building independent trade unions in multiple sectors. In Yangon (Rangoon), the capital, the Solidarity Center’s Tim Ryan spoke with union organizers about forming independent unions and the current government’s stated commitment to democratic reform.

Myo Aung Thant, a 56-year-old executive board member of the Federation of Trade Unions–Burma (FTUB), is skeptical of the promised political changes taking place. Under the previous military regime, Myo Aung Thant suffered 15 years in prison for union activities—during which he was subjected to physical and psychological torture. In his opinion, the political openings claimed by the Burmese government are too slow and, quite possibly, not real.

Recently freed along with several hundred other political prisoners, Myo Aung Thant has reinitiated his work to build an independent labor federation for Burma. Soon various unions will attempt to register with the government. This, Myo Aung Thant explained, will be a crucial test of the regime’s commitment to change.

Union activists from multiple sectors, including journalists, farmers, textile, and garment and industrial workers, met with Ryan. They were in agreement that economic conditions for the vast majority of people living in Burma are severe.

In all sectors, wages are low, and people regularly work overtime without additional pay. Teak factory and garment workers earn less than the average daily rate, between $1 and $2. Their wages are insufficient to cover the cost of living or the price of food, and workers and their families live in poverty.

Union activists in many sectors said they have a fervent wish to organize, demonstrating their belief that improvement hinges on workers’ ability to form representative unions that can bargain effectively with employers. The government recently passed legislation allowing for trade union activity, rescinding a longstanding ban.

The Agriculture and Farmers Federation of Myanmar (AFFM) anticipates an explosion of union formation in Burma in the near future. The AFFM has 4,200 members in 15 states. Its leaders predict they can organize an additional 20,000 farmers and agricultural workers.

Officers and members of the AFFM accused the new government of deliberately delaying registration of their union. They said union leaders and members have been intimidated and harassed following their attempt to file the official registration.

A group of young labor activists from the Myanmar Industrial Trade Union (MITU) said their union filed for registration in November last year. They have yet to receive acknowledgment or a reply.

In spite of deep concerns for their safety, MITU activists remain committed to organizing in various industrial sectors, including garments, woodworking, and construction materials, mainly in industrial zones around Yangon. MITU has already organized 1,000 workers. By April the union anticipates having 2,500 members.

MITU representatives reported being interrogated by members of the government’s special branch intelligence unit and being asked for their biographies. Special branch intelligence and police officers also surrounded and observed MITU’s founding convention.

The Textile, Garment, and Leatherworkers Union of Bago, which has 2,000 members, applied for registration late last year but was rejected. Regardless, the union’s leaders continue organizing and will open a formal office when they accumulate sufficient funds.

Representatives of the Journalists, Press, and Publications Workers Union (JPPWU) said they have a pool of approximately 4,000 media workers from which to organize. The group included a recently released cartoonist jailed by the military regime for work published in the Bangkok Post.

JPPWU activists agreed that there has been a press thaw in recent months but said improvements had not gone far enough. Television and radio, the journalists said, were still “government propaganda.”

JPPWU had its founding convention at the end of January in what the group described as “a safe place.” The union plans to apply immediately for registration.

Almost 22 years ago, the National League for Democracy (NLD) was elected by a landslide. But instead of turning over the reins of government, the military dictatorship crushed the NLD and imprisoned its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. In the ensuing sweep-up, the regime jailed thousands of political prisoners, among them labor activists and union leaders. Many others fled the country.

Over the past two decades the Solidarity Center has supported Burmese labor activists who have worked with Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, reached inside the country, and trained many of the workers now forming unions inside Myanmar. Several activists who met with Ryan reported being recipients of this training.

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