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).

“We’re starting at ground zero. The country is like dough that’s being kneaded. We must decide what shape it has to be,” he says.

Known familiarly as U Maung Maung during his 24 years in exile, the Burmese trade union leader joined Burmese employer groups, investors and representatives of U.S.-based multinationals in Washington, D.C., November 27 in a first-of-its-kind meeting sponsored by the AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center. The group discussed how to shape corporate responsibility and implement best practices as global multinationals consider investing in Burma. Now is the time to ensure their involvement is done right, says Maung Maung.

“Labor needs to be involved from the start. I would rather have workers’ rights built in from the beginning rather than added on later.” The most recent deadly garment factory fires in Bangladesh served as the meeting’s somber backdrop, a harsh example of a failed model of global corporate practice in which hundreds of garment workers have been killed in factory fires over the past few years.

Burma’s new labor laws, passed late last year, 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. There currently are 380 local unions registered with the government, and 500 more in line waiting for approval, Maung Maung says.

Trade union leaders are now organizing workers throughout Burma. At the same time, they are educating workers and employers about the need for workplace safety and health measures and other practices fundamental to ethically operated work environments.  “I do believe there is political space so that trade unions and investors should work together” to ensure corporate social responsibility, says Maung Maung.

Maung Maung returned to Burma in September after nurturing the Burmese labor movement from Thailand during his long exile. He left Burma following a violent military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators that forced thousands of Burmese activists into prison or exile. Following the March 2011 formation of a more civilian government, Burma in April held free elections and Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Parliament, following 24 years of house arrest.

Maung Maung, who encourages multinational corporations to locate factories and operations in Burma and help create badly needed jobs, also has a message for those seeking to invest in the nation: “Let’s try to work together to form sustainable investment so we create an ethical economy.”

Maung Maung interviewed by Solidarity Center staff.

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