Thousands of workers marched in downtown Yangon, Myanmar, to demand fair labor laws as parliament appeared poised to pass legislation that would diminish worker rights.
“Respect our right to unionize!” shouted a march leader. “We want it! We want it!” thronged the response from protesters, most of whom toil between 10 and 12 hours a day, six days a week in the industrial zones surrounding Yangon. They are paid a minimum wage of $3.20 a day.
The country’s two largest unions led the march: the Confederation of Trade Unions–Myanmar (CTUM) and the Myanmar Industries, Craft and Services Trade Union Federation (MICS).
The unions pulled out of the official labor law reform process last month to protest two years of what they describe as fruitless talks with the government and employers to bring Myanmar’s labor laws into compliance with international standards.
“We have to get out and march. We can no longer be patient on this matter,” says Daw Phyo Sandar Soe, CTUM assistant general secretary.
Workers have waged dozens of strikes in recent months, protesting that the laws designed to protect them are broken.
New labor laws enacted in 2011 and 2012 gave workers the right to form unions for the first time in 50 years. Further reforms, including adoption of international labor standards, were promised to incentivize Western investors to do business in the country, where human rights abuses, including forced labor and child labor, have been widespread.
Union leaders fear that promises for further reforms will be broken and that the limited freedoms workers were granted earlier this decade will be largely taken away.
“The parliament doesn’t care about labor issues,” says MICS General Secretary U Thet Hnin Aung. If they failed to listen to worker voices, he added, “we will never vote for them in coming elections.”
CTUM President U Maung Maung says “if Myanmar is to catch up with our Asian neighbors and the rest of the world, we need fair labor laws that can bring us stable industrial relations. Otherwise, international investors will be reluctant to come here.”
Worker rights advocates are hailing a recent court decision in Thailand that dismissed criminal defamation charges against 14 migrant workers from Myanmar who faced jail time after reporting abusive working conditions on a poultry farm.
Fourteen workers who left the farm in 2016 described forced overtime, unlawful salary deductions, confiscation of passports and restrictions on freedom of movement in a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand.
In retaliation against the workers for submitting the complaint, the Thammakaset Co. Ltd. filed a criminal defamation complaint against the 14 workers, alleging they falsified claims to damage its business interests.
The case put a spotlight on abuse in the supply chain, says Solidarity Center Asia Regional Director Tim Ryan. The ruling “strikes a blow against the criminalization of promoting labor rights,” and is a landmark for migrant worker rights and freedom of expression.
“Companies filing criminal defamation complaints against workers who seek justice on the job is an all-too common practice, one often used as justification for dismissal. This decision is in line with international legal standards supporting free speech, freedom of assembly and other activities key to an open civil society.”
Workers Increasingly Migrate for Jobs
One of the migrant workers says he worked 22-hour shifts for more than four years at the Thammakaset 2 Poultry farm, which supplies one of Thailand’s largest chicken export companies. Myint told the Guardian that each day, he would kill up to 500 birds for food processing. At night, he and his co-workers say they slept on the floor in a room with up to 28,000 chickens, swatting away insects. If a bird got sick, they were to blame.
Of the 232 million migrants around the world, 150 million are migrant workers. Millions of migrant workers like Myint and his co-workers are unable to find family-supporting jobs in their origin countries. With labor migration increasing as men and women seek to support their families, the case highlights the rights of migrant workers seeking justice for workplace abuse.
A team of United Nations human rights experts this year called on Thailand to “end recurring attacks, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, union leaders and community representatives who speak out against business-related human rights abuse.”
Referring to the Thammakaset case, they said “business enterprises have a responsibility to avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts; therefore it is a worrying trend to see businesses file cases against human rights defenders for engaging in legitimate activities.”
Thammakaset also filed a criminal complaint against two of the 14 workers and a Migrant Worker Rights Network coordinator for the alleged “theft” of time cards, taken by the workers to show labor officials evidence of their claims about a 20-hour working day. MWRN, a Solidarity Center partner, is a membership-based organization for migrant workers from Myanmar working in Thailand.
Hello. I am Daw Tin Tin Thein. I am 43 years old. I have worked in this factory for nine years. I am responsible for sanitation and garbage collection in this factory. It means I am responsible for keeping this factory clean and tidy.
I have been a member of the trade union for four years. During these four years, I found that the negotiations and coordination between the factory owner and the CBA [collective bargaining agreement] have resulted in many successful resolutions.
Workers receive salaries and minimum wages. Workers also enjoy transportation services and social security benefits. We conduct educational activities under the leadership of CTUM [Confederation of Trade Unions-Myanmar].
Daw Tin Tin Thein, 43, works in a factory just outside Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, where workers ground and mold clay for building materials like floor and roof tiles. Thien, a janitor, beams with pride when she describe how she is responsible for “keeping the factory clean and tidy.”
As a member of the Confederation of Trade Unions-Myanmar (CTUM), she says workers receive social security benefits and have access to educational opportunities.
Thein is among workers whose unions and associations the Solidarity Center works with around the world—and she tells her story at the Solidarity Center Workers Equality Forum.
At the Workers Equality Forum, domestic workers from Kenya, garment workers from Cambodia, factory workers in Honduras and many others share their struggles on the job and often, how they are winning rights on the job through their unions.
For years, Kyin San, like many rice farmers in Myanmar, worried that her land would be confiscated for large-scale development, as had so many other farms over the years.
But now, Kyin Sun says, farmers are no longer hesitant to negotiate with the government to settle disputes. Along with 10,000 other farmers in the Hlae Ku Township, Kyin Sun has joined the Agriculture and Farmer Federation of Myanmar (AFFM), part of the Confederation of Trade Unions–Myanmar (CTUM).
“Through CTUM, we have made much progress,” she says.