Solidarity and Struggle

Striking workers from one of Yangon’s hundreds of garment factories experienced the cold and often vicious realities of the unregulated and destructive capitalism that is characterizing the economic liberalization of Myanmar[1] since 2011. A gang of thugs set about beating workers who had dared to demand better working conditions and the reinstatement of sacked union organizers from the Chinese-owned Fu Yuen Garment Co Ltd on 16 October, hospitalizing dozens. While the Myanmar Government enthusiastically embraces foreign investment, serious and urgent efforts must be taken to correct the power imbalance between labor and capital, starting with the Myanmar Government ensuring that legislation and policies protect workers and guarantee their rights to organize.

The Fu Yuen factory workers have been striking for nearly two months due to poor working conditions and mistreatment at the hands of management. Following negotiations with the factory owner, many of these issues were resolved, yet 30 of the workers who had formed the organizing committee responsible for the strike, all of whom are union members, were subsequently fired. ln response, the factory workers set up a protest camp outside the factory to demand that the union members who organized the strike are rehired. It was this protest camp that was descended upon by hired thugs, who used sticks and metal rods to beat the 200 mostly female strikers, seriously injuring six and sending many more to hospital.

The strikes can be contextualized in a country where inflation is rampant, and despite increases to the minimum wage the rising cost of living is a daily struggle. A report released by Progressive Voice in December 2016, based on interviews with 200 garment factory workers, outlines the ill treatment at the hands of factory management, the difficulties in organizing and forming unions due to the threat of dismissal, and the long hours the workers are forced to work – often 11 hours per day. Due to the high supply of labor and other structural pressures in the country such as urban migration, workers are at a disadvantage when it comes to disputes with their employer as there is always an easy hire around the corner.

The Fu Yuen factory supplies the German firm Lidl, although a recent policy mooted by the EU to remove Myanmar from its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) list that gives easy access to European markets may push Lidl and its peers away from Myanmar. This policy is justified as a punitive action for the violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine State but it is clumsy at best, and very damaging at worst. As a European Burma Network statement points out, “Such a move risks having a disproportionate impact on ordinary people who have played no role in human rights violations against the Rohingya and others, and in fact themselves suffer from a lack of human rights and genuine democracy in Burma.” Rather, the EU should be pushing its firms to conduct proper due diligence and not source from factories that exploit their workers, such as Fu Yuen.

Despite the huge increase in investment in the garment industry in recent years, especially since the US and EU lifted sanctions, strikes and other forms of industrial action have become commonplace in Myanmar’s industrial zones. These actions emanate from the factory floor, from people desperate to end the exploitation of their labor for poor wages in poor working conditions so people in richer nations can buy cheap clothes every season as the world of ‘fast fashion’ fuels a race to the bottom. The strikes and other protest actions by these workers may not adhere to the norms of industrial action that can be easily contained and sidelined by powerful private interests. Neither are they part of a broader, nationwide labor movement that enters into tripartite dialogue with the private sector and the Government, but are often more wildcat in nature. Yet their legitimacy is unquestionable, and their calls and demands reflect workers’ voices that are risking what little they have materially to push back against much more powerful forces of global capital.

The Myanmar Government has the primary responsibility to even out the imbalance between workers who are beaten for demanding better working conditions and the factory owners who profit from their struggle. Unions are an essential and integral part of industrial relations, whether through more conventional structures, or through informal and ad hoc industrial actions by local-level actors. Their legitimacy must be recognized and stronger legislation enacted to ensure that those who fire workers for organizing, or use any sort of violence when they protest, are held accountable.

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[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.


Resources from the past week

actions

Statements and Press Releases

Myanmar: Drop Charges Against Three Kachin Activists

By Amnesty International and CIVICUS

United Wa State Army Continues Crackdown on Christians

By Christian Solidarity Worldwide

ဥပကၡာမျပဳေကာင္းေသာဘဝမ်ား သတင္းထုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္

By Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma

You Cannot Ignore Us: Victims of Human Rights Violations

By Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma

NCA (၃)ႏွစ္ျပည့္ ထိပ္သီးေဆြးေႏြးပြဲႏွင့္ပတ္သက္ၿပီး IKO ၏သေဘာထားထုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္

By International Karen Organisation

ရွမ္းျပည္နယ္ေျမာက္ပိုင္း ေက်ာက္မဲၿမိဳ႕နယ္တြင္ တရုတ္ႏွင့္ျမန္မာသြယ္တန္းထားေသာ ေရနံႏွင့္ သဘာဝဓာတ္ေငြ႕ပိုက္လိုင္းအနီးရွိ အစိုးရကင္းေစာင့္တပ္က ေမာ္ေတာ္ဆိုင္ကယ္ ေမာင္းႏွင့္ေနသည့္ လယ္သမားကို ပစ္သတ္ခဲ့

By Shan Human Rights Foundation

Farmer Riding Motorcycle Shot Dead by Burma Army Patrol Near China’s Trans-Burma Oil and Gas Pipelines in Kyaukme, Northern Shan State

By Shan Human Rights Foundation

Drop Criminal Defamation Charges Against Kachin Activists

By World Kachin Congress

reports

Reports

လြတ္လပ္စြာ ထုတ္ေဖာ္ေျပာဆိုခြင့္ (အစိုးရသက္တမ္းဝက္ အစီရင္ခံစာ) Mid-term Report on Freedom of Expression

By ATHAN

Clash Summary: Chaos Reigned in Northern Shan State in September

By Free Burma Rangers

Burma/Myanmar’s Ongoing Refusal to Pursue Accountability: Time for an ICC Referral

By International Federation for Human Rights, Progressive Voice and ALTSEAN-Burma

BURMA/MYANMAR: Ongoing Attacks Against Civilians and Faltering Peace Process

By International Federation for Human Rights, Progressive Voice and ALTSEAN-Burma

Famine Crimes: Military Operations, Forced Migration, and Chronic Hunger in Eastern Burma/Myanmar (2006-2008)

By Ken MacLean (Clark University)

You Cannot Ignore Us: Victims of Human Rights Violations from 1970 – 2017 Outline Their Desires for Justice

By Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma

ဥပကၡာမျပဳေကာင္းေသာဘဝမ်ား အစီရင္ခံစာ

By Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma


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.

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