Some are More Equal than Others When Faced with Coronavirus Pandemic

“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. They see the coronavirus as an opportunity get away with it.”

The depth and breadth of the health impacts of coronavirus in Myanmar[1] may not yet be known, but the economic impact will be profound on the millions of factory workers, construction workers, labourers, small businesses and other daily-wage workers. In a country in which the Military’s generals and their cronies have for many years siphoned off its wealth and resources, its more recent neoliberal economic path is merely deepening economic inequality. Thus, times of crisis, such as the coronavirus pandemic, only reveals the vulnerability of millions of working people in Myanmar.

One of the major growing industries in the country is the garment sector, employing around 450,000 people, mostly women, who produce clothes for markets in Asia, Europe and the US. It is an industry that has been blighted with problems, including violence against striking workers, dismissal of trade union members and leaders, ineffective legislation to solve labor disputes, and poor working conditions. It is of no surprise then that the coronavirus pandemic has sparked blatant violations of workers rights and resulted in several strikes across the industrial zones of Yangon. Up to 20,000 workers have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic as factory owners simply shut down operations, revealing the precarity of such work.

Some factories, however, are specifically targeting union members. As detailed by the international labor rights group, Solidarity Center, the Myan Mode factory in Yangon fired 250 of its workers, all of whom are members of the union. The 700 workers who were not a member were kept on. As the President of the Myan Mode Union explains in the Solidarity Center statement, “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. They see the coronavirus as an opportunity get away with it.” In another example, a representative from local labor rights group, Future Light Center, who negotiated with a Earth Tamura Electronic Myanmar (ETEC) electronic factory and striking workers, is now being sued, alongside four other labor leaders by the Department of Labour Relations for their role in settling the dispute.

It is not just those working in the garment factories that are vulnerable. Large swathes of the population work informally throughout the country. According to Frontier Myanmar “The Department of Labour estimated in its last Labour Force Survey, conducted in 2017, that 83 percent of Myanmar’s workers, or about 18 million people, are in the informal sector.” This informal sector, which includes agricultural laborers, taxi drivers, construction workers, vendors, and many other professions does not have access to government-run social security at the best of times. Thus, in spite of the announcement by the government to provide food packages during the lockdown period of April 10-19, the scale of the needs for the vast majority of the working poor in Myanmar who live day-to-day at worst and week-to-week at best on meagre earnings with no social safety net, means that such a programme will need to be delivered with a level of organization and resources that Myanmar has only ever shown during targeted military operations.

Already, the Government’s response has been adequate and lacking cohesion, while the military and its proxy political party are capitalizing on the situation for their political gain. Following misleading comments from government officials regarding the diet, culture, and lifestyle of people of Myanmar as a natural prevention for the virus, the severity of the pandemic has finally been acknowledged with belated measures being put into place. Yet the food packages described above have already caused problems. One example is in Magway Division, where food packages for a village were simply inadequate, and villagers ultimately rejected the assistance as there would not be enough to go round, and would create tensions between those who did and didn’t receive packages. Meanwhile, the military and the USDP have been exploiting the crisis by engaging in very public demonstrations of the provision of hand gel and awareness-raising stunts, ensuring that the USDP insignia is very visible.

The sentiment that coronavirus is a great leveller that can impact anyone is a fallacy believed by those fortunate to be able to afford to work from home, stock up on essentials, miss a few weeks wages, or live in a building that has its own electricity generator. The vast majority of people in Myanmar, who work on low wages in precarious work, are going to suffer the most, not only this health crisis, but from the economic consequences of this pandemic. The structural pressures of Myanmar’s economy, which is accelerating towards the model of growth that prioritizes wealth accumulation, privatization, integration into global markets, and low labor standards, are being revealed in all their ugly glory. Given the potential for the Government to fail in dealing with this health crisis, as well as the strong possibility of future pandemics, or natural disasters, which Myanmar is especially vulnerable to, the Myanmar government and its economic advisors must revise its policies to prioritize the millions of working poor who are not benefiting from the economic liberalization that is further entrenching inequality and precarity. An economy in which workers have a much greater say and ownership of industry is a sustainable path that can withstand the type of economic shocks that the coronavirus is giving to countries worldwide, on top of a devastating loss of lives.

Exploitation of resources and labor for capital accumulation has not worked for the majority of people worldwide, and is certainly not working in Myanmar. After the pandemic has wrought its damage, an opportunity for reflection and for a fairer economic development path for all exists, not only for Myanmar, but for the whole world. But the courage to take this path is urgently needed, and given how prone Myanmar is to a number of crises, it is of vital importance for the health and wellbeing of all its people to pursue a model of development that ensures that the poorests and most marginalized are protected.

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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

Protecting Public Health and Safety from COVID-19: The Urgent Need to Enhance Measures in Myanmar Prisons and Detention Facilities to Prevent Outbreaks

By 92 Civil Society Organizations

7 Civilians Killed as Tatmadaw Bomb Village in Paletwa Township

By Chin Human Rights Organization

Burmese Military Bombs Village and Kills Seven Civilians

By Christian Solidarity Worldwide

Burma Army Murders Karen Villager, Fires Mortars into Karen Villages

By Free Burma Rangers

3 Charged for COVID-19 Street Art: Repeal ‘Insulting Religion’ Law, Support Freedom of Expression

By Human Rights Watch

Myanmar’s Directives Not Enough to Protect Rohingya: Ending Repression Needed to Prevent Genocide

By Human Rights Watch

Myanmar Must Allow Free Flow of Information and Aid to Protect Right to Health in COVID-19 Crisis – UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee

By Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

မြန်မာ့တပ်မတော်၏ လူ့အခွင့်အရေးချိုးဖောက်မှုအပေါ် တအာင်းအရပ်ဖက်အဖွဲ့အစည်းများ၏ ထုတ်ပြန်ချက်

By Ta’ang Students and Youth Union, Ta’ang Women’s Organization and Ta’ang Legal Aid

Statement of the Ta’ang Community Based Organizations on Serious Human rights Violations by the Burmese Military

By Ta’ang Students and Youth Union, Ta’ang Women’s Organization and Ta’ang Legal Aid


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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