Photo: ILO / M. Crozet
Photo: ILO / M. Crozet

Between labour and the law

Resurgence of labour activism in Myanmar

Recent months have seen an increase in organised labour strikes in Myanmar, several of which have been met with violence. On 15 October 2018, a group of workers on strike outside the Chinese-owned Fu Yuen Garment factory in Yangon's Dagon Seikkan township faced a violent attack.  While this particular dispute was resolved, following the intervention of the regional minister, trade union activity itself is a relatively recent development.

Trade unions were banned in Myanmar under the military junta, but have begun to organise since the restoration of democracy in 2011, demanding better pay and working conditions. However employers have so far been able to exploit legal loopholes to their advantage. Local law enforcement, too, has been accused of turning a blind eye to the violence directed at protesting workers.

We interviewed author and academic Stephen Campbell on these and other issues impacting labour in Myanmar. Campbell, who authored Border Capitalism, Disrupted: Precarity and Struggle in a Southeast Asian Industrial Zone, is an assistant professor at the School of Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His research addresses questions of state formation, borders, migration, capitalism and workers' struggles in Myanmar and Thailand.

Himal Southasian: Myanmar has seen a spate of labour protests in recent months, including the one at a garment factory in Yangon from August to October in 2018. Can you tell us about these protests and strikes?

Stephen Campbell: The recent high-profile strikes and labour protests are part of a longer trend of increased workers' struggles in Myanmar. Since around 2009, there have been recurring strikes, mostly in the industrial zones around Yangon. Factory workers have repeatedly expressed indignation about wage theft, forced overtime, managerial harassment, the firing of worker organisers and poor working conditions. In addition, inflation continues to raise the cost of living in Myanmar; this has eroded the value of workers' wages and forced many workers to take on large debts to cover basic living expenses. These factors have all motivated persistent worker unrest in Myanmar, including the recent spate of labour protest.

Stephen Campbell
Stephen Campbell

Take, for example, the case of the Chinese-owned Fu Yuen garment factory, which got quite a bit of media attention due to the employer's use of violence to quash the strike. Workers at Fu Yuen went on strike at the end of August 2018, demanding improved working conditions and an end to managerial harassment. In response, the manager fired all 30 members of the workers' organising committee. This led the remaining workers to set up a camp outside the factory where they continued their strike into October. Then, on 15 October, a group of hired thugs stormed the workers' encampment and beat the striking workers with metal bars, injuring 28, of whom all but one were women. The strike came to an end on 30 October, after Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein intervened, and the factory's management announced that the 30 workers would be hired back by the firm. Although this case was especially violent, the features of this strike were not much different from many other cases in recent years.

While foreign media attention has focused on factory strikes, there has also been extensive mobilisation among workers in many other sectors, including construction and fisheries. However, the level of international support for industrial labour rights in Myanmar – by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), for example, or the Clean Clothes Campaign – has not been matched by a similar level of international solidarity for workers engaged in non-industrial labour struggles. Examples of the latter would include the ongoing struggles of independent fishers to achieve collective control over inland fishery resources in the Myanmar delta.

HSA: Labour unions were banned in the country during the military rule, until 2011. In that context, could you briefly tell us about the history of Burmese labour activism?

SC: There's a strong history of labour activism in Myanmar going back to the colonial period, and workers' strikes were an important part of the Independence struggle. However, after 1962, when the military took power, the government nullified the legal position of trade unions and required that workers submit grievances through government-controlled Workers' Councils.

When workers organised independent unions during the 1988 popular uprising, these were not legally recognised, and the post-1988 military government became even more draconian in restricting worker mobilisation. After around 2000, there was an expansion of light manufacturing industries, such as textiles and food processing, where workers initiated localised efforts at informal organising. But the situation remained restrictive. Then, around 2008, with the promulgation of a new Constitution, industrial workers in Myanmar started to organise and strike. In fact, there was a wave of strikes by factory workers in 2009-2010, just before the return to elected government.

The quasi-civilian government of U Thein Sein, which took power in 2011, introduced new legislation drafted with support from the ILO, legalising trade-union formation (in October 2011) and formalising collective bargaining (in March 2012). The new laws aimed to curb strikes by providing institutional channels for workers to pursue redress of employment grievances. In practice, however, many workers found these new institutional channels inadequate and so took the opportunity provided by the new legal coverage to increase strikes. As a result, in 2012, there was another wave of strikes in the Hlaingtharyar, Shwepyithar, and Hmawbi industrial zones around Yangon.

HSA: What is your assessment of labour organising after 2011 when democracy was restored, which also coincided with several neoliberal economic changes?

SC: The most significant moment of economic liberalisation was after 1988, not after 2011. It was after 1988 that the government removed restrictions on imports and exports and opened up the country to foreign capital investment. It was also after 1988 that the government abolished the Workers' Councils and outsourced many government projects to private firms, such as in the construction sector. Due to the economic sanctions imposed by Western governments at the time, most foreign direct investment after 1988 came from East Asia, especially China.

Legislative changes since 2011 have further reduced restrictions on foreign capital, and there have been efforts to court Western capital investment, with only partial success. Foreign investment in light manufacturing has increased factory employment, especially in garment, textile and footwear production, but factory wages have not kept up with the rising cost of living. In any case, increased employment opportunities have not been able to offset the decline of agrarian and other rural livelihoods. This has resulted in significant outmigration to countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

In terms of workers' mobilisation, since 2012, there has been a rapid increase in enterprise-level trade unions. These are unions formed at a single factory or other workplace and are often not connected to any higher-level trade union federation. In some cases, employers have established these unions themselves in order to contain disruptive workers' struggles and to prevent the emergence of worker-controlled unions, which are generally more democratic and confrontational than employer-controlled unions. In other cases, where enterprise-level unions have been independently formed, they have often represented only a minority of workers at a given workplace, or they have been hollowed out by the firing of their members. This is a complaint of many Yangon-based factory workers with whom I've spoken. In yet other cases, higher-level union administrators have tried to limit strikes and have encouraged union members to water-down their demands. As a result, workers deciding to go on strike are often not in registered unions, or, where they are unionised, they have taken actions independent of higher-level union administration. In such cases, the perceived ineffectiveness of the government's industrial-relations mechanisms is a major reason workers have felt compelled to strike.

HSA: Local law enforcement has been accused of not doing enough to prevent violence against factory workers despite prior warnings of potential attacks. Is there a reluctance on the part of the state to intervene on behalf of workers in such confrontations?

SC: Many of the worker with whom I have spoken view local branches of the state – specifically, township conciliation officers and the police – as biased on the side of employers. In some cases, workers have been adamant that government labour conciliation officers have accepted bribes to side with employers. As for the police, they have a long history of intervening to break strikes and prevent solidarity protests. In one notorious case from 2015, the police deputised civilian vigilantes to violently disperse striking workers. In the recent Fu Yuen incident, the police blamed the women on strike for causing the violence that left 28 workers injured. And when students in Yangon organised a rally in support of the Fu Yuen strike, the police arrested the organisers and charged them with holding a public rally without a permit.

HSA: The garment industry is one of the fastest growing industries in Myanmar and accounts for large fraction of its exports. It also appears to be the industry with most militant labour organising. Is there a connection between the two?

SC: As a 'low-skilled', labour-intensive industry, garment production in Myanmar has brought together large numbers of young workers whose wages barely cover their own subsistence. The gains they might achieve through collective action are significant for their own livelihoods, and for the livelihoods of family members whom they may be supporting. While Myanmar's garment workers have demonstrated a readiness to strike, the Myanmar garment industry is not unique in the militancy of its workers. We see similar patterns among garment workers in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia. Nonetheless, if the garment sector in Myanmar continues to expand without a major improvement in wages and working conditions, then we can expect to see increased mobilising in the years to come, with a high-level of militancy among the country's garment workers.

HSA: What is your assessment of the increase in the minimum wage rate earlier this year? Is this a sign that the labour movement is growing stronger?

SC: In May 2018, the government raised the daily minimum wage from MMK 3600 (USD 2.3) to MMK 4800 (USD 3). However, the new rate remains grossly insufficient, as workers, trade unionists, and labour organisations in Myanmar have repeatedly stated. Surely, the growing labour movement played some part in pushing the government to raise the rate, but I believe the increase should be attributed more to the continued threat of workplace strikes, than to the negotiations of trade union officials. In any case, most trade unions and labour organisations were demanding a higher rate of MMK 5600 (USD 3.5). Actually, the increased rate has not resolved the matter, because inflation, which stood around 8 percent in August, is already eating away the increased purchasing power of the new wage rate. The status quo is not sustainable and further wage increases are necessary immediately.

HSA: What are some weaknesses of Myanmar's labour movement? Also, given that most workers are still unorganised, how representative are the unions of the country's workers?

SC: Workers in Myanmar have demonstrated an impressive capacity for self-organisation and collective action, considering the challenges they face. Of course, there's always the problem of unrepresentative union bureaucracies that stifle worker initiative, but this is a challenge for labour movements everywhere. Some trade union federations in Myanmar remain formally independent from political parties, but several upper-level union officials are aligned with the ruling National League for Democracy. The Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar, for example, was previously an exiled political organisation based in Thailand, where its General Secretary, U Maung Maung, also served as General Secretary of the NLD-aligned National Council of the Union of Burma. In any case, workers in Myanmar have often gone on strike independent of formal unions. The bigger challenge now is building a broad coalition of workers, smallholder peasants and their allies, who could advance a more equitable vision of development in Myanmar. Until that happens, workers in Myanmar will have to continue to fight for limited gains within the narrow parameters of a foreign-capital-investment-driven export economy.

HSA: Women have been on the frontlines of some of these strikes. What has been their role in the country's labour movement?

SC: Over ninety percent of workers in Myanmar's garment sector are women, and women factory workers have been inspiring in their determination and skill as rank-and-file organisers. However, many trade union federations continue to be dominated by men. This has led in some cases to splits, where women organisers have left existing male-dominated unions in order to establish women-led unions that can more effectively advance their interests. One example is Solidarity of Trade Unions Myanmar (STUM), a women-led union federation formed in 2016 by former members of the Myanmar Trade Union Federation (MTUF). The women who established STUM had left MTUF due to grievances over male-domination of union leadership positions and the patriarchal practices of certain union officials. While this is an ongoing struggle, I'm confident that women in Myanmar will increasingly shape the direction of their country's labour movement.

HSA: How do you see the relation between labour and capital unfolding in the near future in Myanmar? And what do you think will be the state's role in this evolution?

SC: The current government in Myanmar has demonstrated its commitment to push ahead with a foreign-capital-investment-driven export economy. This has required concessions to foreign and domestic capital and restrictions on workers. For example, aside from police crackdowns on workers' strikes, the 2011 Labour Organisation Law requires that unionised workers wanting to strike obtain advance permission from their trade union federation. Workers have also complained that weak labour law enforcement has allowed employers to disregard labour protection laws and the rulings of the country's labour courts. Meanwhile, current Members of Parliament overseeing labour law reform have argued that increasing fines or prison sentences for employers who violate labour laws would scare off foreign investors.

While the struggles of workers in Myanmar have indeed been inspiring, they have so far been restricted by this wider development agenda. Ultimately, a broader challenge to the status quo will require a push beyond the limits of trade unionism, so that workers, smallholder peasants, students, the unemployed and others can come together to collectively advance a more equitable vision for the future of Myanmar.


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Himal Southasian