Workers ’Rights in Myanmar should be respected

May 14th, 2024  •  Author:   Mizzima  •  5 minute read
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On International Workers ’Day, 1 May, Myanmar workers showed their collective strength through powerful protests, ceremonies, and statements—both inside the country and beyond, according to campaign group Progressive Voice.

It says that in Myanmar today, workers ’rights have hit a horrific low, as workers and trade unions are under constant assault by both the Myanmar military junta and exploitative employers. At the same time, in neighboring countries, workers from Myanmar also face harrowing conditions in maintaining their livelihoods.

Before the coup attempt, workers in Myanmar experienced a brief period with some civic space to organise and advocate openly for their rights. Following its coup attempt, the military junta banned trade unions, labeling them “terrorist organizations.” As a result, workers ’protections—hard-won gains by the labour movement—have rapidly eroded.

In October 2023, the International Labour Organisation’s Commission of Inquiry for Myanmar found the junta’s actions “have resulted in far-reaching restrictions on the exercise of basic civil liberties and trade union rights.” Nevertheless, workers and trade unions have remained at the forefront of the people’s democratic resistance movement, putting their lives on the line for democracy and human rights.

In continuing its targeted assault on workers, last September, the junta ordered overseas workers to remit 25% of their earnings sent back to Myanmar through junta-approved banks. This year, the junta has also weaponized its forced conscription against workers, first by abruptly suspending recruitment drives of the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Association.

And as of 1 May, the military junta banned men eligible for its forced conscription from seeking employment abroad. This ban comes after more than 100,000 fled the country in April.

What’s more, the junta’s repeated targeting of workers has left them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation by employers. From 2022 to 2023, reports of human rights violations in Myanmar’s manufacturing sector tripled, with over half the reports relating to garment factories.

The co-chair of the New Light Federation of Labor Unions Myanmar told Than Lwin Times, “Employers are shamelessly leveraging the coup [attempt] to further exploit workers. Amidst multiple crises, workers are primarily focused on retaining their jobs, often at the expense of enduring exploitation by employers.”

Verbal harassment, forced overtime, no paid leave, and unlivable wages of 5,800 Myanmar Kyats ($2.76 US Dollars) per day only scratch the surface of the rampant abuse Myanmar’s garment workers—most of whom are women—face. With wages unchanged despite skyrocketing inflation, some workers are eating one fewer meal per day to get by. Women workers also face open sexual harassment.

In April, employees at the KSENG (Myanmar) Apparel factory in Yangon Region were forced to work without breaks to meet productivity requirements and to work overtime until 9:00 pm despite workers ’safety concerns.

The conditions are similarly perilous for Myanmar workers who have sought employment in neighboring countries, where many are trafficked and forced into modern slavery.

This March, around 200 Myanmar workers at a garment factory in China were fired and deported after protesting for better wages and working conditions.

In Thailand’s agricultural sector, Myanmar workers face—among other difficulties—long hours without overtime pay, substandard housing, and wages far below legal minimums. Likewise, in Thailand’s fishing and seafood processing industry, Myanmar workers have long been subject to their employers ’whims, enduring unpredictable working hours, wage deductions for any absence, and insufficient bathroom breaks.

As the junta continues its violent assault on Myanmar’s workers, it remains critical for other actors to comply with their international obligations under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and ensure better protection of workers ’rights, including safe working conditions and truly livable wages, both in Myanmar and beyond, according to Progressive Voice.

In this vein, the Migrant Workers Rights Network, an organisation for migrant workers from Myanmar working in Thailand, calls for greater legal and social protections for migrant workers in Thailand. These protections from neighboring countries should include the right to unionize, accessible education for migrant workers ’children, and clear pathways to obtaining legal immigration status and work permits for both workers and their families.

Furthermore, to build a truly inclusive federal democratic Myanmar, the voices of workers, trade unions, and labor activists must be heard and included at all levels, says Progressive Voice.

Myanmar labour activists have expressed that when human rights issues in Myanmar are discussed, workers ’rights are often left out. This is despite workers ’and unions ’tireless efforts and sacrifices in the fight for a better future defined by human dignity, equal rights, and freedom from military tyranny.

As Myanmar’s people work with unprecedented sacrifices, solidarity, and determination to establish federal democratic governance across the country, it is critical to recognize the struggle and contributions of Myanmar’s workers, as well as include their voices in representative governance bodies and incorporate their calls, including for decent, respectful workplaces and higher wages adjusted for inflation and modern living costs, according to Progressive Voice. This also means the collective pursuit of a more democratic economic paradigm, where inequality is reduced, rather than perpetuated and exploited.

In the words of the Solidarity Trade Union of Myanmar, “workers can achieve their rights only by their solidarity.” Going forward, Progressive Voice believes this solidarity must be strengthened—across sectors and classes—and transformed into real representation of workers ’voices at all levels of government in the new federal democratic Myanmar. Workers ’rights must be respected, protected, and fulfilled in the new, inclusive Myanmar that the people are building from the ground up.

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