Thu 10 Oct 2013
Filed under: Business / Trade,Human Rights,Inside Burma,News
Most worker organisations formed under Myanmar’s new labour laws are still facing strong opposition from factory owners, activists and workers have told The Myanmar Times.
They say factory owners regularly fire labour leaders and even start their own organisations to divide workers. But the organisations are also denied other basic rights outlined in the Labour Organisation Law, which reintroduced the concept of organised labour in 2012, decades after unions were declared illegal by the military government.
“Though workers organisations were formed under the labour law, most of them do not have full rights,” said U Htay, a labour activist and lawyer who regularly helps workers involved in disputes. “They don’t get a chance to meet inside the factories, or make regular meetings. They also cannot meet with those on the management level.”
U Kyaw Myint, an activist from Action Labour Right, confirmed that progress is slow and intimidation in the factories and workplace is still a problem.
“It is still happening. I won’t deny that the situation is better for many labour organisations. But a high percentage are still struggling under the pressure of factory owners,” he said.
U Kyaw Myint said in some factories, owners have also formed their own labour organisations using the new law to divide workers.
“Some owners create problems like this,” U Kyaw Myint said. “There are many other ways to pressure [labour] organisation members, such as cutting salaries if they leave the factory floor for a labour organisation-related issue. Many workers can’t do anything when they are threatened with a salary cut.”
However, there is also some evidence that the Labour Organisation Law is slowly helping to improve conditions in factories, particularly around Yangon.
Workers are starting to use the law to strike legally rather than embark on wildcat strikes, which have been a regular occurrence over the past two years.
Both Ma Lei Lei Soe from the Sakura garment factory in Hlaing Tharyar township and Ko Myo Min Min from the World Fashion garment factory in Shwe Pyi Thar township said that workers have benefited through the formation of labour organisations.
“The situation is better than before,” said Ma Lei Lei Soe, who is secretary of the Sakura garment factory workers’ organisation. “We protested for 16 days in May and then demanded some labour rights through the organisation … At first we also faced difficulties in negotiation with the owner. We struggled for a couple of months but then later the management and owner understood us and saw that we are not demanding more than what we are entitled to.”
The workers’ sought not only pay rises but also for management to protect workers from mistreatment by supervisors and not for them to work overtime on Sundays.
“Except for salary rises, we got much of what we demanded,” Ma Lei Lei Soe said.
Ko Myo Min Min said that workers at World Fashion garment factory have more freedom than before thanks to the efforts of their worker organisation.
“It’s like we are building trust between owners and workers. At first factory owners disliked [the organisations]. They didn’t recognise [us] and put pressure on us. But later, they reduced gradually.
After by-laws for the labour legislation were enacted in March, more than 350 worker organisations were formed in 2012 and another 260 until mid-August this year, according to Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security figures. While they span the country, most are from factories in Yangon Region.
But U Htay said the number of organisations did not give an accurate indication of whether the law is working in practice.
“Although organisations were formed easily – almost all applications were approved by the Ministry of Labour – most owners still don’t recognise them,” he said.
Owners also frequently threaten to fire leaders of worker organisations or, if they have another premises, to relocate workers who participate in the organisations to a new workplace. Another intimidation tactic, he said, is to persuade other workers to form another labour group.
“If you want proof [of intimidation by owners], just ask how many workers who protested and led labour organisation are still in their original workplace or factory. Many of them, who I know personally, are all gone because they formed an organisation,” said U Htay.
Ko Aung Htut understands this intimidation all too well. In June 2012, when he was working at a car factory in Shwe Pyi Thar township, he was a founding member of a worker organisation.
After only a few months, however, Ko Aung Htut dissolved the organisation and quit his job because of pressure from management.
“When the law came out, we campaigned to form a labour organisation on our own,” Ko Aung Htut said. “At first, workers were afraid and the management told us not to do it. When we explained the law to them they relented but later they upset the organisation’s members by cutting their salaries and cutting their bonuses.”
Not all employers are opposed to the labour organisations. Some openly admit that conditions in their workplaces need to improve and believe that workers’ representatives can assist in this process.
“There should definitely be a worker organisation in every factory,” said U Khin Maung Myat, managing director of the San Kaung factory in Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone 2.
“Factory owners don’t know about every single problem workers face … A worker organisation can act as a bridge between owners and workers,” he said.
Like most factories in Yangon, San Kaung has had its share of labour disputes over the past two years. In May, employees stopped work for a whole month – some even launched a hunger strike – calling for 49 sacked workers to be reinstated and higher salaries. The dispute was eventually resolved through negotiation with the factory’s worker organisation.
U Khin Maung Myat said that employers generally want to resolve the disputes as quickly as possible to get production rolling again.
“We don’t want problems inside our factories. Usually an owner will agree to the workers’ demand as much as they can,” he said.
However, he warned that labour representatives and workers should avoid being too confrontational in their negotiations with their employers.
“The aim of a workers’ union should be to create a better environment for workers. Just opposing whatever the owner says is not a good way to solve a problem.”