Unionization for the Advancement of Workers’ Rights

February 1st, 2017  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  6 minute read
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Over 20 garment workers lost their jobs this week when the Chinese-owned Unitedtex Overseas Co factory dismissed them for trying to unionize. The garment industry in Myanmar[1] is growing exponentially as more and more buyers seek investment in low cost factories. Yet, despite an increase in jobs, this incident is the latest in several recent labor related disputes signaling that Myanmar still has a long way to go in the protection and promotion of labor rights standards.

Hlaingtharyar Township in Yangon has many factories known to be in violation of labor laws. The workers from the Unitedtex Overseas Co factory say those suspected of attempting to form a union were forced to sign a resignation notice following their dismissal. Those who refused were allegedly threatened and would not be released until they agreed to end their employment, whereas workers who accepted termination were immediately paid reparations. Ko Tun Naing Oo, one of the workers leading the protest to start the union stated: “We aren’t looking for compensation. We want our jobs back.”

In a related case, garment workers from the Hallmark factory also located in Hlaingtharyar Township, went on strike twice this month when thier wages were withheld without an explanation. After bringing their wage complaint to the municipal level, an agreement was reached for the company to reimburse the workers no later than 12 January, 2016. However, the workers rallied together a second time after management compensated the wages of those who went on strike at a reduced amount – citing claims that production on those days were impacted. “Factory officials told us they will cut our wages for the days we have been striking. But this strike only happened because they failed to pay our wages on time,” said Ko Tin Win Ko, a protester who has been employed in the factory’s ironing section for four years.

“Factory officials told us they will cut our wages for the days we have been striking. But this strike only happened because they failed to pay our wages on time,” said Ko Tin Win Ko, a protester who has been employed in the factory’s ironing section for four years.

Even more recently, nearly 1,500 workers from a nickel factory participated in a strike in Sagaing Region following a perceived loss of job opportunities and alleged disagreements between the way foreign and local staff are treated. The workers argued that the factory is taking away hundreds of jobs that should be given to local workers. The factory employs 1,600 Myanmar workers and 400 Chinese migrant workers. A worker’s representative from the Taguang Taung Nickel Factory, Ko Tin Myo Tun, claimed the company is violating the Myanmar Investment Law, which states that only citizens can be appointed to positions not requiring certain skills. The protest follows a rally from mid December when hundreds of workers gathered to demand better working conditions and benefits that were purportedly only offered to their Chinese colleagues.

In all three of these instances the workers sought legal support, but were ultimately disappointed by a lack of action and accountability from labor legislation that is not strong enough to protect them. A report released by Progressive Voice in December 2016 revealed that workers in the garment industry continue to be frequently exposed to unfair working conditions including being forced to work overtime, reduced break times and threat of unlawful dismissal and continuous verbal abuse. As labor organizations and trade unions struggle to fight for workers’ rights, the incentive for factory management to take advantage of workers is evident. Furthermore, factory owners fail to take labor legislation and workers’ rights seriously. This is exacerbated by the fact that the penalties for not adhering to decisions made by the arbitration bodies and the Arbitration Council are not punitive enough to enforce compliance. Pressures from the global markets suggest that Myanmar is at a serious risk of further violating labor rights in order to keep up with the competition needed to thrive economically.

Domestic legislation is not sufficient enough to protect workers. Myanmar has a unique opportunity to take advantage of the global shift towards increasing social compliance. However, the lack of progress in labor sector reforms made by the government and corresponding factories clearly indicates that profit is still prioritized over people. External factors such as weaknesses in enforcing the Arbitration Council and arbitration body decisions, as well as intimidation of unions and their members make awareness of labor rights more difficult. International buyers have a responsibility to invest in due diligence when they source from Myanmar’s factories. Business operations must take seriously the call to comply with relevant international human rights and labor standards including the ILO Conventions, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Myanmar Government is obligated to protect workers and must make regular efforts to engage with independent, grassroots labor organizations and trade unions to learn about the realities faced in factories. Workers must also have the space to unionize so they can advance their fundamental rights.

Despite the structural pressures that Myanmar faces, it is imperative that the voices of workers and labor activists be heard and acknowledged in amending labor legislation and forming policy that goes further to reinforce the protection of workers.

[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

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Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”