Myanmar’s labor unions have been all but crushed amid a crackdown by the junta in the more than 19 months since the military seized power in a coup, according to union officials and the workers who they represent.
On March 1, 2021 – one month after the takeover – the newly formed junta’s Ministry of Immigration and Manpower declared 16 labor unions and labor activist organizations illegal. Activists who promote workers’ rights and the groups they represent have since become a target of frequent harassment by authorities.
In a report released on Aug. 24, the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Yangon warned that trade unions and civil society organizations (CSOs) providing services to workers and migrants “face an existential threat” in Myanmar following the takeover, citing the severe limitations on their ability to operate amid what it called “targeted persecution.”
The report said the members of unions and CSOs assisting workers face arbitrary arrests, detentions, acts of violence, raids on homes and offices, seizure of equipment, threatening phone calls, and interrogations and surveillance.
The crackdown has left workers at the mercy of their employers and subject to various forms of abuse in the workplace, the ILO said.
On March 14, 2021, a group of unknown individuals set fire to the Chinese-owned No. 2 Solamoda Garment Factory in Yangon region’s Shwe Pyitha township, destroying the structure and causing more than 1,200 workers to lose their jobs.
The affected workers recently told RFA Burmese that the company had agreed to pay them 2.3 billion Myanmar kyats (U.S. $1.1 million) collectively in compensation, but has yet to do so, and no action has been taken by authorities to resolve the case.
One worker from the garment factory, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said that while Myanmar has a long history of labor rights violations, the situation has worsened significantly since the coup.
“Nowadays, when companies hire workers, they only ask for day laborers. They don’t offer jobs with salaries [and benefits],” the worker said.
“If you like it, you take it. But if you can’t accept it, you have no option but to leave … There are no more jobs where you can claim compensation according to the law if you get fired or laid off.”
A factory worker in Yangon, who also declined to be named, said demanding labor rights in Myanmar is more difficult than ever, as there are no unions to fight on behalf of workers.
“If workers unite and there are labor organizations in every factory, the unions can negotiate and fight against one-sided regulations,” the worker said.
“Otherwise … the management will sow doubt and dissent among the workers.”
Responding to the ILO’s findings, the junta’s Labor Ministry issued a statement on Sept. 2, rejecting claims that labor organizations are under attack in Myanmar. It said the groups are permitted to form and operate freely.
However, an official from the Federation of General Trade Unions of Myanmar (FGWM) told RFA that trade unions are being systematically “uprooted” in the country and can no longer protect workers.
“Most of the unions have disappeared in the workplaces. The situation is even worse than what the ILO reported,” the official said.
“We have a situation where the unions have been completely uprooted. Those that remain are also in a precarious state, so there aren’t many options for the workers.”
The official said the junta is currently “hunting down” the leaders of trade unions, while employers pressure labor leaders in the workplace to cut off contact with the organizations.
Exploiting workers’ fears
Among the 16 organizations that were dissolved as illegal by the junta in March 2021 were the Solidarity Trade Unions of Myanmar (STUM), the Burma Federation of Labor Unions, Action Labor Right, the All Myanmar Trade Union’s Network, and the Association for Labor Development (ALD).
STUM Director Myo Myo Aye, who was arrested for taking part in anti-junta protests and jailed for more than six months until her release on Oct. 21, 2021, told RFA that any union formed in accordance with the rules of the ILO is “legal” and deserves protection under the law.
“Whether they are recognized or not … it is a labor union,” said the labor leader, who spent 45 days in solitary confinement during her imprisonment.
Despite the junta’s dissolution of Myanmar’s unions, Myo Myo Aye said she continues to fight for the country’s workers as best she can.
“Most of the workers are afraid. They are always worried they will get arrested or sent for interrogation, and employers are taking advantage of those fears,” she said.
“I want to say to them that there’s nothing to be afraid of. You can’t be taken away for interrogation just because you demand your rights. While it’s difficult to [make demands] these days, the workers must do whatever they can. To put it plainly, the unions are dead without movement.”
According to the ILO, at least 1.1 million of Myanmar’s 54.4 million people are unemployed – most of whom are women.
Workers have called for the Ministry of Labor to undertake measures to reduce unemployment and raise the minimum wage, amid rising inflation.
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