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Growing labour unrest in Myanmar

Publication Date : 12-02-2013


Myanmar's workers have woken up to new rights, and labour unrest has spread in recent months among small factories in industrial zones.

But in a country with often dismal and dangerous working conditions and low wages, infighting among ambitious labour leaders at the national level is threatening to derail the core goal of improving the lot of workers, analysts and activists said.

As many as 390 labour unions have registered since a new labour law effective in March last year allowed trade unions to be set up. Under the law, strikes are allowed at three days' notice. The law was one of the most significant pieces of legislation to be passed early on by the reformist government of President Thein Sein, and designed to lift Myanmar to international standards.

Dr Khin Zaw Win, a former political prisoner who trains labour unions, said in an interview that the understanding of the law is still weak. "All this is happening in a context where workers are being badly exploited," he said. "No wonder so many labour organisations have emerged and so many protests are happening."

There have been dozens of protests and strikes - something never allowed under the old law - over the last six months, mostly over low wages, workplace safety and "unfair dismissals".

But with high unemployment and many people clamouring for jobs, workers have little leverage, labour activist Kyaw Kyaw of Action Labour Right told the local media. "Another point is that most employers don't want labour unions," he said. "Consequently, problems have erupted between employees and employers."

Indeed, last month, for the first time, Myanmar's Parliament was informed that the country's unemployment rate was about 37 per cent, and more than a quarter of its around 60 million population were living in dire poverty.

Dr Khin Zaw Win is among many activists who have been holding workshops to educate workers and employers on labour rights and negotiation.

A Yangon-based analyst specialising in labour issues said that with at least three different factions in Myanmar's national trade union landscape, there was a risk of political agendas hijacking labour rights. This could provoke a pushback from several sectors including the government.

The union landscape was in the process of evolving from company-level unions to associations, and then to some national-level unions. But evolution was slow, he said, mainly because of the rivalries. "The question is, are you looking for a union movement to represent the interests of workers, or a politicised movement that will draw resistance?"


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