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.
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 Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM), 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 povertyand 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.