Workers at the Myan Mode garment factory in Myanmar (Burma) are celebrating the return to the job of many recently fired union members.
Following a two-month fight against the factory’s attempt to use COVID-19 to destroy their union, they won an agreement May 30 that immediately reinstates 25 fired union members and brings back within two months 50 workers who joined strikes to protest the employer’s actions. It also guarantees the recall of hundreds of other fired union members when operations return to normal as the pandemic eases.
In March, Myan Mode permanently fired all 520 union members working in the Yangon factory, citing a decrease in orders due to COVID-19. Yet the owners retained more than 700 non-union workers and continued to operate the factory. The workers were fired minutes after union leaders held a contentious meeting with management in which they demanded an end to mandatory overtime due to fear of contracting COVID-19.
The move has been repeated around the world by employers seeking to use the novel coronavirus pandemic as a means to eliminate unions and weaken workplace rights. In a key provision of the new agreement, the employer agrees to not break the union and that “no discrimination against the union shall occur for any reason.”
“This was not an easy fight,” says Mg Moe, general secretary of the factory-level union, which is affiliated to the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar (FGWM). “We wanted all our unfairly dismissed union brothers and sisters to be immediately reinstated.”
During negotiations with the union, factory management repeatedly resisted retrenchment plans that would not discriminate against union members. Myanmar authorities and global apparel brands doing business with Myan Mode failed to compel the factory to do otherwise, despite the company’s actions having violated labor law and the brands’ ethical codes of conduct.
‘Our Union Members Stood Strong’
“The central factor in our victory was that our members stood strong”, says Moe Sandar Myint, a union leader at FGWM. “Although we could not achieve full justice, the employer and the brands could no longer ignore our demands entirely. Our workplace union fought doggedly to win the survival of our union, and we now live to fight another day.”
The workers conducted ongoing actions to protest the dismissals, initially staging a five-day sit down at the factory gates but switching to creative uses of social media as authorities banned gatherings due to COVID-19 concerns. Their sustained efforts garnered international media attention and solidarity support from worker advocates around the world, including the Solidarity Center.
“We are also fighting against union-busting in other factories that supply clothes to the same brands that do business with Myan Mode,” says Moe Sandar Myint. “These brands promise to uphold worker rights in their contracts with their factory suppliers but we see little action from them to enforce those commitments. We will continue to struggle against injustice using strong unions in the factories and international solidarity, and will not rest until the entire garment industry is humane for workers.”
To ensure the agreement at Myan Mode is honored, the company has agreed to form a monitoring committee with a third party that is neither the company nor the union. The committee, created in consultation with nongovernmental organizations that include the Solidarity Center, will assess whether laws and company regulations are being followed as dismissed workers are rehired, and it will operate until at least the end of 2020.
While workers around the world scramble for physical and economic safety amid the global pandemic, some factory owners in Southeast Asia see the crisis as an opportunity to attack workers’ unions to increase profits and deny worker voice.
On March 28, the Myan Mode garment factory in Yangon, Myanmar, permanently fired all 520 union members working in the factory and withheld March wages, citing a decrease in orders due to COVID-19. However, the owners kept all 700 workers who are not members of the union, and the factory continues to operate.
The Myan Mode union is one of the strongest in the country’s garment industry, with a history of strikes to improve wages and working conditions. For the Myan Mode garment worker and its president, Maung Moe, the blatantly discriminatory firings send a clear message: “They want to get rid of our union, get rid of our voices, get rid of the requirement to treat us like human beings, once and for all.” He added, “They see the coronavirus as an opportunity get away with it.”
The firings came just minutes after union leaders held a contentious meeting with management in which workers demanded an end to mandatory overtime due to fear of contracting COVID-19. Shortly after, management announced the immediate termination of all union workers over the factory loudspeakers.
Workers Globally Fear Employers Will Use COVID-19 to Silence Them
In recent years, employers have increasingly used temporary factory closures to break unions. In many unionized garment factories around Southeast Asia, owners briefly close the factory only to quickly reopen with new, non-union workers. Owners often change technical registration details such as the factory’s name or registrant to circumvent labor laws while maintaining the same core operation. The only change is the elimination of the unions.
With such a tactic already pervasive in the industry, garment workers fear that the global pandemic—with factories forced to temporarily close far and wide—will become a pretext for eliminating their unions. Myan Mode’s Korea-based owner did not wait for the factory’s full closure but simply cited the need for a partial workforce reduction as grounds to dismiss all of its unionized workers.
The Myan Mode workers, mostly young women from rural villages (Myanmar’s garment workforce is more than 90 percent women), refused to accept their dismissals. Hundreds of union members established a camp in late March in front of the factory gates, a common union tactic in Myanmar. Union members eat, sleep, sing union songs and otherwise live at the camp, sitting on the sun-baked dirt with nothing more than a nylon tarp to shield them from the hot sun.
Factory ownership has offered compensation to union members who accept termination and leave the protest camp. As a result, the union has seen its membership numbers diminish. A core group, however, refuses to leave for anything short of reinstatement. Nearly 100 fired union members remain and were joined on April 6 by 40 non-union workers, who elected to strike in solidarity.
Protest camp ranks have also been reinforced by workers from nearby garment factories who are members of the same union federation, the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar (FGWM). So far, the union has chosen not to physically block the factory gates to shut down production, another common tactic in the country. A swarm of security around the factory patrols to intimidate union leaders from doing so, and many of Myan Mode’s union leaders already face legal charges from assisting strikes at other unionized factories in recent months.
After five days of sit-down protests, factory ownership finally agreed to negotiate with the union, but has refused to reinstate the fired workers.
Undeterred, the protest continues, and union leaders have begun reaching out to high-profile European brands whose goods are produced at the factory. The protesters recently traveled en masse to both the Korean consulate and the Myanmar labor conciliation office to push for reinstatement.
On April 3, the factory owner finally agreed to pay the dismissed workers their March salaries. But many union members continue to sit firmly in front of the factory gates to demand reinstatement.
“If we don’t win our jobs back, I don’t know how we can feed ourselves or our families back in our home villages,” says Moe, the union president. “If we don’t protect the union at the factory, the wages won’t be enough, the workload will destroy our bodies, and there will be no safety protections. There’s no future for us without the union.”
Employers Target Union for Improving Working Conditions
The minimum wage for garment workers in Myanmar is roughly $3.50 per day. Myan Mode workers, through several hard-fought strikes, won a union-negotiated agreement that provides for approximately $4.75 per day. A typical one-bedroom apartment in Myanmar industrial areas costs roughly $100 per month. The notorious dormitories employers frequently rent to workers typically demand half of their total wages.
According to workers, the union is being targeted because of its recent success addressing egregious working conditions. “With the union, we have some rights and some freedom as workers, unlike before,” said Moe. “For example, our union won the right to ‘gate passes’ to leave the factory when we need to during work hours, whereas before we were not allowed to leave, literally locked in. We’ve also won more reasonable production targets, so our bodies aren’t quickly broken.”
More than half a million people in Myanmar work in garment factories, and a wave of strikes over the past year increased the number of garment workers in unions, to about 50,000 members. While many have hailed the growth of the industry as a sign of Myanmar’s economic development, harsh poverty persists: Myanmar’s minimum wage is near the lowest in Asia, life expectancy is the lowest on the continent, rampant sexual harassment is reported in the factories, and workers frequently live in company-owned dormitory-style slums. In a country with little to no safety net and weak labor laws, the union movement in the garment industry represents workers’ best hope of escaping lives in sweatshops and winning anything resembling decent living conditions.
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.”
Two female migrant workers from Myanmar were arrested in Thailand, fined and await deportation for volunteering their time to teach children of migrant workers at a Buddhist monastery, an action the Thailand-based Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) is calling “illegitimate and unjustified.”
The two women, who hold valid passports, visas and work permits, volunteered at the Laem Nok Monastery in southern Thailand in addition to the jobs for which they were hired. But immigration officials charged them with performing work without a permit to teach, even though the time they spend instructing the children is unpaid, according to HRDF and the Migrant Working Group (MWG). The MWG is a network of non-governmental organizations working on health, education and migrant workers’ rights that includes the Solidarity Center.
The arrests occurred despite the statement of one worker’s employer who told police the worker is lawfully employed and has been excused to take leave from her regular job painting boats because she is pregnant. The monastery also affirmed the two workers taught without pay, actions that are not illegal in Thailand, says HRDF, a Solidarity Center partner.
“The arrests could signal a strong discouragement to other similar teaching programs in the country and could also pose a negative impact on education opportunities for migrant children as a whole,” HRDF and MWG said in a statement.
Volunteers Taught Children at Risk of Exploitation
The Laem Nok Monastery has operated a learning center for children of migrant workers for more than four years. The program began after the community recognized that migrant children, who are often left without care when their parents are working can be targets of forced labor, human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. With support from community fundraising, the monastery dedicated a learning space where children are taught the languages and cultures of Thailand as well as those of their origin countries. Local businesses provide funding for food and teaching supplies, but the teachers are unpaid volunteers, including local college students.
HRDF and MWG are calling on Thailand’s Department of Employment, Ministry of Labor to establish clear guidelines for enforcing compliance with work permits and to review the policy that restricts migrant workers from becoming paid or unpaid volunteers.
The groups also are urging police to ensure migrant workers’ legal rights are respected, including the right to legal counsel and to bail during pre-trial.
“The arrests have created undeserving traumas to the children in the classroom who had to witness their teachers being arrested and taken away in front of them,” says HRDF.
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