OVER the past two months – since employees at the Tai Yi shoe factory in Hlaing Tharyar township stopped work on May 2 – a strike has occurred every few days in Yangon’s industrial zones. A few have captured a lot of attention, and many have passed with little notice, the workers’ demands quickly resolved.For most of the thousands of workers who have stopped work, their main complaint is their extremely low basic salary – usually about K8000 a month. But there are other, less well-known reasons for the strikes, namely the environment inside the factory. Many workers have complained during strike negotiations that the managers treat them badly. They are unable to speak during work hours or go to the toilet as often as they need to. Many lose a large proportion of their salary, which is comprised mostly of attendance bonuses, if they take a single day off.
It is important to note that this is not the case in every factory, or even necessarily the majority of factories in Myanmar. But these issues have all come to light as a result of the strikes, which have received significant media coverage.
At a recent public meeting in Hlaing Tharyar township, U Win Shein, head of the director of Factories and General Labour Laws Inspection Department, warned both local and foreign supervisors and managers that they needed to create a “warm environment” in their factories.
“If a worker is sick, please allow them to take leave. If a worker has an accident while working, please take them to a doctor. And don’t make unnecessary rules for the factory floor,” U Win Shein said at the June 12 meeting.
“I don’t want to see any discipline that is not really needed in the factories. For example, rules that state workers must not go anywhere for the first 30 minutes after they arrive at work,” he said.
“Workers sometimes come from far away to get to the factories so, for example, they might need to go to the toilet when they arrive. But managers command them not to go anywhere for 30 minutes. That kind of rule is simply not needed.
“We still have many things to do. We should support the forming of worker unions. And I want to tell the management level people here not to scold, abuse and beat workers. And tell the owners – who mostly are foreigners – what we have instructed you. Don’t hesitate to tell the owners.”
Perhaps the most controversial element of the strikes has been the role of labour rights activists, lawyers and political groups assisting the workers. Many of these people and organisations insist they are just filling the gap before labour organisations, or unions, are established, while some factory owners accuse them of inciting workers to strike.
The 88 Generation student group has assisted in 37 strikes in the past two months, said senior member U Ko Ko Gyi.
“In every case, the workers and owners tried to negotiate themselves first. We were only involved in those cases where the owners and workers couldn’t resolve it on their own,” he said.
“Often the workers do not have enough knowledge. I saw that the workers demand that their working hours be set from 7am to 7pm. But internationally, eight hours a day is considered reasonable. Because they are working 14 or 16 hours a day now, they think they are lucky if they work 12 hours a day.
“So they need somebody who can get involved and help them have a smooth conversation with the owner. That’s how activists first became involved in the strikes.”
He warned that the resolutions reached between workers and owners were “just like temporary solutions” until laws protecting the rights of both employers and workers are promulgated. Another requirement is that those implementing the law need to be impartial.
“Worker unions are needed now more than ever. And also owners need to be smarter. They need to understand that worker unions are not there to oppose the owners. They are just a group that will negotiate to solve the problems between the owners and workers. And us activists will help them to get a better future.
“Problems between workers and owners are like fights between family members. Regardless of how the family members are discordant, they have to meet each other. Owners and workers are the same too. Owners can’t run their business without workers and workers can’t live without owners. We are just advisers,” he added.
While workers have greater freedom to air their grievances than before, there are still concerns that many of the strikes are technically illegal. While the Labour Organisation Law allows workers to strike, it is a relatively complex process to get permission and much of the infrastructure, such as unions, does not exist yet.
Regardless, few workers understand how they can use the law to strike legally, said U Myint Soe, better known as Labour Myint Soe.
“The government is … trying to improve the country in many ways. But we can’t develop only the physical aspect of the country, we also have to work hard to develop our knowledge,” U Myint Soe said.
He said that it was important that workers and employers started using the Settlement of Labour Disputes Law 2012, which was approved by the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw in March.
“All people who are involved in these cases and helping the workers should use the law practically,” he said.
“But things are smoother than before. At the beginning, only the activists helped to negotiate between owners and workers and it was quite difficult to solve [the disputes]. Later, the Ministry of Labour and other departments focus on the cases and solve the problems, so things are better. Officials and activists should cooperate to solve these problems.
“We have been able to resolve many strikes but I knew it’s not a real solution. We have to do a lot of things to protect workers’ rights and to help them get the rights that they deserve. What we are seeing now is just the beginning.”