Labour rights re­forms and im­pa­tient unions a chal­lenge for NLD Myan­mar’s in­dus­trial work­force is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly unionised and as­sertive

The Myanmar Times - - News - HTET KHAUNG LINN news­room@mm­times.com

MA Myat Thiri Nwe left her poor vil­lage in Aye­yarwady Re­gion three years ago to find work in Myan­mar’s com­mer­cial cap­i­tal Yan­gon and soon af­ter ar­riv­ing found a job in one of the many gar­ment and shoe fac­to­ries on the city’s out­skirts.

The 24-year-old now works at a Chi­nese-owned shoe fac­tory, where she toils six days per week from 8am to 5:30pm, a daily shift that in­cludes sev­eral hours of over­time to meet pro­duc­tion tar­gets and raise her in­come.

Through this gru­elling sched­ule, she earns about K160,000 (US$136) per month, one-third of which she sends to her fam­ily back in the vil­lage.

Work­ers and labour unions com­plain work­ing con­di­tions at the fac­tory are poor and even dan­ger­ous. There is no can­teen and only a few out­door toi­lets, and Ma Myat Thiri Nwe’s tasks in­clude look­ing af­ter a ma­chine that stamps rub­ber soles onto shoes – if it jams she has to man­u­ally re­move the shoe.

Another worker, she said, lost a fin­ger in an ac­ci­dent with the ma­chine a year ago.

“Some­times, I ask my­self whether I am re­ally ben­e­fit­ing from my work. But I can­not stop as I need to sup­port my fam­ily,” she said. “And I can­not take much leave - when my fa­ther was se­ri­ously ill I could only go home for four days.”

Like most work­ers and union mem­bers in Myan­mar’s quickly grow­ing gar­ment sec­tor, Ma Myat Thiri Nwe voted for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in last Novem­ber’s elec­tions, hop­ing that her Na­tional League for Democ­racy (NLD) would be able to raise in­comes and im­prove work­ing con­di­tions for the ur­ban poor.

In what is perhaps one of its most im­por­tant chal­lenges for the gov­ern­ment, the NLD must bal­ance the de­mands of labour unions, fac­tory own­ers and for­eign in­vestors to keep Myan­mar’s gar­ment in­dus­try grow­ing and dis­trib­ute the ben­e­fits among an ex­pec­tant, poor labour force.

So far, af­ter about five months in of­fice, the NLD’s ef­forts in this area have made lit­tle im­pres­sion on Yan­gon’s work­ers and unions.

Ma Myat Thiri Nwe said, “I do not un­der­stand pol­i­tics, but I think we are los­ing our labour rights even though we are work­ing hard. Gar­ment work­ers have not en­joyed im­proved work­ing con­di­tions.”

“Myan­mar labour­ers have not seen no­tice­able de­vel­op­ments that ben­e­fit them. We have not se­cured any more labour rights,” said Ko Ye Naing Win, pol­icy direc­tor of Co­op­er­at­ing Com­mit­tee for Trade Union that pro­vides ed­u­ca­tional work­shops on work­ers’ rights. “And the coun­try will not de­velop well if it can­not en­sure labour rights.”

Labour laws In recent years there have been some im­prove­ments in Myan­mar’s labour rights sit­u­a­tion. The pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment set the first min­i­mum wage at K3600 ($2.80) for an eight-hour work­day last year af­ter pres­sure from in­ter­na­tional gar­ment brands and years of ne­go­ti­a­tions.

But Myan­mar only le­galised unions in 2011 and in­dus­trial re­la­tions – and laws and mech­a­nisms to gov­ern them – re­main un­de­vel­oped.

Since the start of demo­cratic re­forms, the gar­ment sec­tor has ex­panded rapidly and, ac­cord­ing in­ter­na­tional brand rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the Myan­mar Gar­ment Man­u­fac­tur­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, the sec­tor’s value could grow from around $912 mil­lion in 2012 to $8 bil­lion in 2022, by when it could em­ploy 1.5 mil­lion work­ers.

Cur­rently, lo­cal, Chi­nese and South Korean-owned fac­to­ries around Yan­gon em­ploy around 300,000 work­ers, mostly young women.

A De­cem­ber 2015 sur­vey by UKbased aid group Ox­fam among work­ers in Yan­gon found, how­ever, that the new min­i­mum wage “will not be enough for work­ers to look af­ter them­selves and their families”. It noted that 43 per­cent of work­ers in­ter­viewed at 22 fac­to­ries were “trapped in debt”.

The re­port said one-quar­ter of the work­ers were forced to work over­time. Ox­fam said, “Of­ten, fac­tory man­agers do not lis­ten to work­ers when they raise prob­lems,” adding, “Safety was a big con­cern. More than one in three work­ers re­ported that they had been in­jured at work.”

Ma Win Theingi Soe, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of work­ers at Yes One Gar­ment Fac­tory and a cen­tral com­mit­tee mem­ber of the All-Myan­mar Labour Fed­er­a­tion, said it was un­clear how many fac­to­ries have started pay­ing the min­i­mum wage and other ben­e­fits re­quired by law.

“Some work­ers seek our help to set up labour unions at their fac­to­ries be­cause work­ers who are not mem­bers of a union do not get a min­i­mum wage,” she said, adding that em­ploy­ers of­ten lay off work­ers who get in­volved with labour unions.

Ko Phoe Phyu, a labour rights lawyer, said labour dis­pute ar­bi­tra­tion is still in its in­fancy in Myan­mar and its out­comes are in­con­sis­tent.

“Many labour laws don’t specif­i­cally de­fine labour rights. The new gov­ern­ment should im­prove this,” he said, adding that cur­rent laws only fine em­ploy­ers for labour rights vi­o­la­tions and this should be changed to in­clude re­vok­ing of busi­ness li­cences.

U Thein Tun, an NLD lower house mem­ber and sec­re­tary of the Farm­ers and Work­ers Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, agreed that amend­ments were re­quired to im­prove labour con­di­tions.

“The amend­ment of existing labour laws play a key role in pro­mot­ing labour rights and de­cent wages. We are try­ing to do so,” he told Myan­mar Now. “[But] we will try to amend the labour laws of the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment only if we found weak­ness or flaws.”

He said his com­mit­tee had iden­ti­fied six laws – some of which are decades old, such as the Em­ploy­ment Sta­tis­tics Acts of 1948 and the Em­ploy­ment Restric­tion Act of 1959 – that should be re­vised.

But a first pri­or­ity, he said, was progress in Myan­mar’s peace process, adding that its suc­cess would stim­u­late eco­nomic growth and in­vest­ment, and so im­prove the job mar­ket and work­ing con­di­tions.

Set­tling dis­putes Many labour dis­putes in Myan­mar con­cern wages. Last year, al­most half of the to­tal 1019 reg­is­tered dis­putes dealt with this is­sue, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment fig­ures. Among these dis­putes, 353 were set­tled among the par­ties and 165 cases went to court.

U Aye Tun, vice chair of the Myan­mar Gar­ment Man­u­fac­tur­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, said the Min­istry of Labour, Im­mi­gra­tion and Pop­u­la­tion of­ten favoured work­ers when ar­bi­trat­ing labour dis­putes.

“In most dis­putes, the Labour De­part­ment or­ders us to ful­fil the de­mand of labour­ers to in­crease wages, with­out tak­ing into ac­count the dif­fi­cul­ties of em­ploy­ers,” he said.

Em­ploy­ers pay 5 per­cent of work­ers’ salaries to gov­ern­ment-run wel­fare pro­grams, amount­ing to around $30 mil­lion per year, he said. But gov­ern­ment in­ef­fi­ciency made it hard for work­ers who suf­fer ill­ness and in­jury to ac­cess these ben­e­fits.

U Nyunt Win, a direc­tor gen­eral at the Min­istry of Labour, Im­mi­gra­tion and Pop­u­la­tion, said both em­ploy­ers and work­ers needed to un­der­stand each other bet­ter. Since the NLD took of­fice, his de­part­ment had pro­vided train­ing on labour rights to fac­tory man­agers, su­per­vi­sors and work­ers at 3342 fac­to­ries, he said.

Ko Phy­oWai Aung, 26, a leader of a labour union formed at Great Wall 1 Shoe Fac­tory in Yan­gon, said he had led de­mands for bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions and wages, but was fired from his job in May 2015 for his ac­tiv­i­ties.

His case ended up in court – though he won, the pun­ish­ment meant lit­tle to the fac­tory.

“The fac­tory was fined K1 mil­lion [about $830] as it failed to reap­point me in ac­cor­dance with the court ver­dict. This amount of cash fine is very small for the fac­tory owner. I will con­tinue my case in the up­per courts,” he said.

U Moe Moe Myint Khaing, man­ager of the Hu­man Re­sources De­part­ment at Great Wall 1, said the fac­tory was open to work­ers’ sug­ges­tions, but said there had been no for­mal com­plaints and de­clined to com­ment on Ko Phyo Wai Aung’s case. – Myan­mar Now

Photo: EPA

Women work at a gar­ment fac­tory in Yan­gon’s Hlaing Thar Yar In­dus­trial Zone on July 10, 2015.

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