Trade union registration offers hope
Last week the Myanmar government officially registered the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM). This move comes at a particularly important time as a dispute over the minimum daily wage continues to hit the headlines and garment manufacturers try to lobby the government to keep the daily minimum wage at a paltry 2,500 kyat (US$2.16). This is a wage that can barely sustain an adult let alone a family.
In an attempt to ensure their workers continue to live in abject poverty more than 160 business owners in Myanmar wrote to the government to show their objection to the proposed minimum wage of 3,600 kyat (US$3.11). Manufacturers have threatened to close around 100 businesses should the new law be introduced in what is a serious affront to the workers who toil every day and who help provide the profits to their shareholders
These businesspeople, who work for Chinese, Korean and Myanmar-owned garment factories, one of the largest sources of industrial employment in the country, argue that the increase would make their businesses unsustainable stating that a higher minimum wage for garment workers would discourage international investment.
However, this is a claim that many retailers who source from the country deny. Rather, they say, a minimum wage that has been negotiated by all parties will attract rather than deter international companies from buying garments from the country especially companies that have committed to upholding international labour standards in their global supply chain.
It is quite clear that manufacturers are trying to hold the Myanmar government to ransom and seek to continue the oppression of those that work for them. Workers rights groups claim this is a critical time for a strong trade union movement to come forward and support vulnerable workers.
The trade union movement has suffered under previous military governments. The Federation of Trade Unions Burma (FTU-B) was an underground trade union formed in 1991 and included workers and students who were involved in the general strike of August and September, 1988. However, due to military policies at the time its members were arrested and jailed. Some were sentenced to death.
The fact that the Government has allowed the registration of the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM) suggests a strong commitment to the reform process and the authorities should not allow themselves to be bullied by business owners.
The CTUM must be encouraged in its work to ensure better legislation, decent jobs, sustainable living wages, and democracy in the workplace. As a letter to the CTUM from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) notes:
‘’ [Myanmar] is becoming a new refuge to investors seeking low wages in the Asian region. We believe that the working people and trade unions of Myanmar have the right and opportunity to choose a model of economic and social development that is fair, just and environmentally sustainable rather than the race to the bottom. The growing influx of foreign direct investment must be accompanied by the protection of fundamental labour standards, fair living wages, and effective collective bargaining with independent trade unions.’’
Let us hope that fundamental labour standards can be given to the workers of Myanmar.