LABOR IN MYANMAR
Labor force - by occupation: agriculture: 70 percent; industry: 7 percent services: 23 percent (2001) GDP - composition by sector: agriculture: 38.8 percent; industry: 19.3 percent; services: 41.8 percent (2012 est.); GDP - composition by sector (percent) agriculture: 54.6 percent, industry: 13 percent, services: 32.4 percent (2005 est.), [Source: CIA World Factbook]
Unemployment rate: 5.4 percent (2012 est.), country comparison to the world: 50; 5.5 percent (2011 est.)
Salaries are very low. In the early 2000s a teacher was paid about $15 a month; civil servant and university professors, $20 a month. A high-level civil servant got $25 a month. The low salaries have invited corruption. Professors have been forced to take jobs sewing clothes on the streets to make ends meet. Caretakers of temples in Pagan at one time earned 17 cents a day plus a ration of rice.
The average wage in Myanmar in the manufacturing sector is lower than in other Southeast Asian nations and about one-sixth of China’s. Female workers in garment factories in the early 2000s were paid 50 cents a day. They were provided with free transportation in a 60-year-old bus and brought cylindrical-shaped lunch boxes.
According to Countries and Their Cultures: “There is little specialization in the agricultural sector. Small-scale commercial trading is done by both men and women, with men being primarily responsible for the transportation of goods. Ethnic Indians and Chinese are an important segment in commercial trading, but many Burmese and others are involved in commercial activities. Few tasks or professions are the monopoly of a single ethnic group. There are various forms of traditional craft specialization. This includes making lacquer ware, stone working, fine wood carving, and working with metal. Modern technical professions such as medicine and engineering are related to one's level of education and specialized training. Those in the higher levels of commerce and administration generally come from the families of prominent members of the regime, and connections with the regime are important factors in amassing wealth and power. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]
Myanmar employees are hardworking and loyal to their bosses. In return, a boss is expected to be a father figure and give help in times of need. Such help may be the giving advice to sort out personal problems or the granting of a loan in a financial crisis. As in all Asian cultures. Myanmar respect people who are older than them. To avoid friction in the workspace, make sure that a subordinate is not resentful of working under a younger supervisor. Negative communication is usually indirect. If it is necessary to discipline an employee, it is best to do it in private and with tact. Loss of “face” is a serious matter among Myanmar people. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]
An average worker earns about $2.00 a day.
Hard Labor in Myanmar: Breaking Rocks and Beating Gold
As in India you see people in Myanmar on the sides roads breaking rocks with small mallets. Kira Salak wrote in National Geographic, “I am bolstered by the memory of a local woman named Than, 35, whom I met squatting on the rocky shore near the town of Myitkyina. Her wiry forearms were burnished a coffee brown from the sun, and she wore a dirty sarong around her tiny waist. All day long she raised a mallet over a pile of rocks before her, cracking them into halves, then into fourths, to sell to the roadbuilders. Her two-year-old son, naked and with a bloated belly, stood nearby; her two daughters, ages three and twelve, helped gather the rocks. I asked how long she'd been doing such work. "Ten years," she said. There was no bitterness in her voice. Just the crack of her mallet on a new stone. [Source: Kira Salak, National Geographic, May 2006]
The process of gold-bearing which takes place in Mandalay is very interesting. A goldsmith starts with a lump of gold, the size of a silver dollar. The lump is then pounded into a foot long rod which is passed through a hand cranked roller. Repeating this process several times creates a ribbon of gold 55 feet long. The ribbon is then cut into square pieces, and each piece is placed between layers of bamboo paper or parchment. Several dozen of these paper-wrapped pieces are then bound and placed inside a deerskin cover, which is pounded with a sledge hammer or wooden mallet. The gold is then removed and cut into pieces again. This process is repeated until gold sheaths created. Each gold sheath is about five inches square and 1/200,000 of an inch (0,000127 centimeters) thick—which is thinner than the ink on a printed page. The sheaths are bought in packet by Buddhists who place the them on Buddhist statues and temples.
Unusual jobs in Myanmar include palm frond peddler, manual moat dredger and sparrow catcher. Among the most high;y paid professionals methamphetamine chemist.
The Burmese military has used forced labor, known as "government servants" or "ghosts," to build roads and dams, harvest sugarcane and other agricultural products, sweep for mines, build military bases, lay railroad tracks, restore tourist sights and clear land. Human Rights Watch has recorded cases of Burmese citizens being abducted and forced to works as porters, carrying army supplies and weapons, and act as human shields with battles against ethnic insurgents in "malaria-infested war zones."
Forced laborers can be seen at road construction sites breaking rocks with pick axes, sledge hammers and small hammers under the hot midday sun. Hundreds of thousands of "volunteers" were put to work on the Mong Kwon electric power station, a railroad in southern Burma and a Western-financed natural gas pipeline. Involuntary "donations" have been coerced to bring computers to schools.
Myanmar is one of 19 nation criticized in a 2002 State Department on slave trading. The report on the issue said laborers are forced to work 60 days a year without pay and are required to bring their own food. Forced prison laborers clad in loincloths and chains are required are to work every day under the eye of rifle-toting soldiers.
According to a U.S. State department report hundreds of porters were thought to have died in 1994 alone "from disease and overwork.” “Reports of mistreatment and rape were also common....When porters are wounded, ill or unable to continue their work, some have been reportedly left unattended to die."
According to a United Nations Human Rights Commission report: "Even children are forced to do this kind of work. On May 29, 1988, troops are reported to have forced to work 10 to 15 boys, between the age o 14 and 16 to work at military bases. They were not fed, and were even beaten up by the soldiers." The use of forced labor is so widespread that the International Labor Organization (ILO) expelled Burma from the ILO for the regime’s widespread use of forced labor.
The International Labor Organization said in 2003 that in the central part of Myanmar forced labor was no longer used to build canals, airports and railroads but reported that in Myanmar’s border regions the military required farmers to carry supplies, clean barracks and build roads without pay. Refugees in Thailand gave similar reports. According to the ILO, Myanmar government efforts to tackle the forced labor problem at the time in the ethnic states consisted of little more than translating decrees into minority languages.
More recently Humantrafficking.org reported: “Military and civilian officials have for years systematically used men, women, and children for forced labor for the development of infrastructure and state-run agricultural and commercial ventures, as well as forced portering for the military. Some observers estimate that thousands of children, including boys as young as 11 years old, are forced to serve in Burma’s national army as desertions of men in the army continue. Government authorities use various forms of coercion, including threats of financial and physical harm, to compel households to provide forced labor. Those living in areas with the highest military presence, including remote border areas populated by ethnic groups, are most at risk for forced labor. The regime’s treatment of ethnic minorities makes them particularly vulnerable to trafficking. One study found an acute problem in Chin State where 92 percent of over 600 households surveyed reported at least one episode of a household member subjected to forced labor, including being forced to porter military supplies, sweep for landmines, or build roads, with the Burmese military imposing two-thirds of these forced labor demands.[Source: Humantrafficking.org ]
See Separate Article FORCED LABOR, CHILD SOLDIERS AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN MYANMAR
Child labor is another big social problem in Myanmar. Many of the children are recruited by agents who pay parents money for the services of the children in an arrangement that has a lot in common with slavery. One UNICEF representative told Reuters, "It's the new slave trade. The new phenomenon of debt bondage is emerging in areas like the Philippines and Thailand and beginning in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
On the side of roads you can see girls carrying dirt on their heads and boys breaking up stones with a hammer and chisel for the equivalent of five cents a day. According to UNICEF: Many children are employed in factories, teashops and other business enterprises where they work long hours under arduous conditions, for very little pay. Other children take to the streets to be. some run afoul of the law, and others are conscripted despite national laws prohibiting this practice. Many of these children are vulnerable to trafficking, and many trafficked children and women are forced to work in the commercial sex industry.
Myanmar has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
See Separate Article FORCED LABOR, CHILD SOLDIERS AND HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN MYANMAR
Myanmar’s Poor Eek Out a Living with Leftover Gold and Jade
Reporting from Kharbar, Myanmar, Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Squatting along the rocky banks of the Nmai Hka River, villagers labor from dawn till dusk over large wooden pans, scrounging for crumbs from the junta's table. Children barely big enough to swirl the heavy slurry toil alongside men and women, doing backbreaking work that exposes them to toxic mercury. Every few minutes, they pause and tilt their dripping pans to catch the sunlight, hoping for the glint from a few golden flecks that haven't been scooped up with the rest of Myanmar's vast mineral wealth by the ruling generals and their cronies. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2007 *|*]
“On a recent day by the river, Ja Bu, 46, strained to lift shovel loads of slurry as a 10-year-old boy, ankle-deep in the cold, muddy water, worked a pan big enough for him to bathe in. Sixty miles west, Ja Bu's younger brother was searching for jade in the drainage ditch of a mine exhausted years ago by the junta. The few dollars that Ja Bu and her brother manage to scratch together each day from what the generals didn't take buys food, clothes and shelter for 10 people. *|*
“The junta tightly controls access to its large gem and jade mines, but remote places such as Kharbar” are beyond their reach. “But the junta doesn't let much trickle down to places like Kharbar, a remote northern stretch near the Himalayan foothills, close to the Chinese border. It's a spectacularly beautiful, unforgiving place where villagers live in thatched huts with walls woven from bamboo. Thin as cardboard, they are flimsy shelter against frigid winter winds. And as the cost of food and fuel rises, so does the villagers' resentment, which roils like the rapids of the Nmai Hka that taunts them with tiny gifts of gold. *|*
“Dong Shi, a wiry man in a green sweater splitting at the seams, has been working the brown slough and bamboo sluices here for three years. On a good day, he finds $8 worth of gold flakes, the biggest about the size of a pinhead. Like other prospectors, he must pay $250, or more than half an average person's annual income here, to the owner of the land for permission to pan just 10 square feet of riverbank.After Dong Shi pays his stake's owner, his share of the diesel to run a generator and sluice pumps, school fees for his four kids and other mounting expenses, he has little left. "We eat all that I earn," he said. "I have nothing left in my pocket. Tomorrow I go back to work on the river, just to have some more food." *|*
“It is grueling, risky work. To separate gold particles from the slurry, miners squeeze drops of mercury from strips of cloth soaked in quicksilver, exposing them and the river fish they eat to dangerous levels of the heavy metal, which can damage kidneys and the nervous system. For all the prospectors' pain and risk, most pans come up bust. So they dig deeper, push the limits harder.Desperate to hit pay dirt, dreaming of finding a rare nugget instead of just flecks, some villagers rig up hand pumps onshore to homemade breathing hoses, and wade to the middle of the river. They work up to three hours at a time underwater. *|*
“Child labor is an essential part of production at the bottom end of outdoor factories that surround Mandalay's jade market. Children huddle on their haunches around glowing embers in metal braziers, melting doping wax on the end of dop sticks, plucking small pieces of jade from a cup, and carefully placing them on the wax blobs. They blow gently to harden the seals and then hand the sticks up the line to other children. *|*
“On a recent day, one boy sat on the edge of a stool, stretching his leg to reach a wooden pedal that he pumped to spin a bamboo cylinder, wrapped in sandpaper, as he ground pieces of jade to a refined sheen. Once they'd done their best with small hands scraped by the grinders, the boys passed the jade along to men. It takes an experienced hand to get the shimmering polish that will bring the best price, a small piece of the profits that keep Myanmar's military in power. That can't be left in the shaky hands of children. *|*
Labor Activist Su Su Nway
Ma Su Su Nway is a Yangon-based labour activist and National League for Democracy (NLD) party member. In 2005 she was sentenced to 18 months in prison after filing a complaint that led to the successful prosecution of government authorities over the use of forced labour. For her work opposing forced labour in Myanmar, Ma Su Su Nway was in 2006 awarded the John Humphrey Freedom Award from the Canadian organisation Rights & Democracy. Released from prison in June 2006, she was rearrested in November 2008 for displaying of a banner near the hotel of U.N. human rights envoy Paulo Pinheiro. Ma Su Su Nway was subsequently released from prison in October 2011 and has since been involved in labour organising activities in Myanmar. [Source: Stephen Campbell, New Mandala, February 11, 2013]
Nora Boustany wrote in the Washington Post, “Su Su Nway, a labor activist, stood up for labor rights in defiance of the military government two years ago and has been in and out of jail several times. She is best known in human rights circles for winning a historic court ruling against local government officials in 2005 by invoking international labor standards. Her activism began when government officials forced her and her neighbors to repair a village road without pay. In bringing her complaint, she relied on a 1999 law that allowed reporting on labor rights abuses to the International Labor Organization. The army often uses civilians as porters and forces them to walk ahead of soldiers to test for mines. “Su Su Nway's legal victory was the first against the junta's long-standing practice of forced labor. But in its aftermath, Su Su Nway, who suffers from a heart condition, was sentenced to 18 months in prison on charges of defaming authorities.[Source: Nora Boustany, Washington Post, November 14, 2007 ><]
Speaking about her life and goals, Su Su Nway told Stephen Campbell, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, “I’m a rural person. I’m not someone with a university degree. I advanced from a village. I’ve faced a lot of dangers and many difficulties. I’ve had to stand in politics. I’ve had to stand in life without parents. Furthermore, I’ve advanced from a village that was really oppressed by the military government. In order to advance like that I’ve faced a lot of danger and have gone through many difficulties. Therefore, I always talk about my life. I never forget my life. Now, when I go to give speeches, if I’m given a seat, I never sit on it. I sit down [on the floor] and talk from there. The reason is that I’ve advanced from the bottom. And we need to go towards democracy from the bottom. The president says that our country is changing and reforming. So, okay, I’ve got one question I’d like to ask: If that’s the case, then what’s being done for subordinate groups like workers and farmers? In our country workers, farmers and rural people are at the bottom. So, the question I want to ask is what’s being done to guarantee the existence of the people at the bottom? If transformation is truly desired, if the emergence of democracy is truly desired, yet workers and farmers aren’t given their full rights, then this country can never be called a democracy. [Source: Stephen Campbell, New Mandala, February 11, 2013 +=+]
“If a democratic transformation is truly desired, if the emergence of a democratic country is truly desired, this transformation will only occur once the government does a lot to guarantee the lives of rural people, workers and farmers. Only then will it be possible to call our country a democracy. The reason is that our country is an agricultural country—a country that’s based on farmers and workers. These poor workers and farmers are the majority. The workers are the children of farmers. Workers’ families have faced land confiscation. There’s no employment in the villages. Due to that unemployment parents are poor, and when they have children the children go to the city to get jobs in factories. So, the workers come from farmers. Until there’s a government that protects rural people, farmers and workers, our country cannot be called a democracy. +=+
New Myanmar Labor Laws
After the new Myanmar government came to power in March 2011, two new labour laws were promulgated: the October 2011 Labour Organisation Law and the March 2012 Labour Dispute Settlement Law. They give workers the right to form unions and strike. According to the laws workers can form unions with a minimum of 30 members and stage strikes if they give 14 days notice and give details on how long the strike will last and how many workers are planning to take part. Before that unions were banned. Workers' rights are still restricted.
Commenting on the new labor laws, in February 2012, Su Su Nway told Stephen Campbell, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, “If I’m to talk about Myanmar’s laws, all that has been done is that they’ve promulgates these laws. They [the government] themselves don’t respect the laws that they’ve promulgated and they haven’t given precise instructions all the way down to the lowest civil servants under them to respect the laws. Therefore, all that can be said is that they’ve promulgated these laws. The people haven’t yet benefited from these laws. If I’m to explain about these laws that they’ve promulgated, as much as there are items that the workers and I can accept, there are also items that the workers and I cannot accept. Regarding the items that the workers can accept, I haven’t seen the government give precise instructions down to the township labour office. That’s my view about these laws and the view of people involved in workers’ organisations. So in this country, no matter what law is promulgated, if precise instructions aren’t given to respect and follow the law, then the workers aren’t able to protect themselves from the difficulties, conflicts and violence that they face. [Source: Stephen Campbell, New Mandala, February 11, 2013 +=+]
“When the workers try to protect themselves, it’s the people with money who win: the old grandfathers—the generals and ministers—and those who are close with them. It’s the people with money and the people with power who win. As for the people who are really suffering—the people who must work to eat—they’ve only won about once out of every ten times. And it’s only been when the workers’ organisations, the media, the journals, the NLD, and the 88 Generation Students have all collectively shouted out. That’s what I’ve seen of what they’ve done regarding the law. +=+
On organising activities in Myanmar among workers not employed in factories, Su Su Nway said: “ Another thing we’ve done concerning workers is form a union of water workers and a union of agricultural workers—for example, when a land owner has more than 50 acres and hires about 4, 5 or 10 workers. We gathered these agricultural wage workers and formed an Agricultural Wage Workers’ Union according to the ILO rules and regulations. Also, those who work fishing on lakes and such must hand over their fish. So this is labour related. We’ve therefore formed a Water Workers’ Union according to the ILO rules. Also, for workers who load ships and work on ships, I met and discussed with worker leaders. I wanted a workers’ union to be formed. So, I asked them if they’d form a union. And I explain the ILO regulations. They agreed and we formed a ship workers’ union. Also, there are oil tanker workers who work on government oil tankers who must push and unload barrels of oil. So, for all of Myanmar—not for those who go internationally—we formed an Oil Tanker Workers’ Union. These are some of the other workers’ unions. +=+
Myanmar Labor Strike
Commenting on a strike she was involved in February 2012, Su Su Nway told Stephen Campbell, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, “While I was resting a little, the workers’ strike broke out at the Tai Yi factory. I wasn’t present when the strike first broke out. ...At about 2:00, workers called me. They said to me, “Sister, this case involves about a thousand workers. We’re striking because our wages are low.” I thought, “Is this true or not?” and I called someone involved in labour issues to go and see. [Source: Stephen Campbell, New Mandala, February 11, 2013 +=+]
“On the morning of the following day, I got a call: “Ma Su Su Nway, the strike is continuing today. Please come immediately.” When I arrived I could see many workers. They gathered around me and told me that they didn’t get paid even 1,000 kyat per day in wages. So, it wasn’t at all a decent situation for these women’s livelihoods or for renting a room. So, they were in a cycle of debt. They had therefore issued demands to increase their wages and overtime pay. According to what these workers were telling me, they were really failing to get their rights. Since they were failing to get their rights like this, I asked, “Has the Labour Supervision Committee not come?” “They came,” they replied. And they asked me to speak with the committee. +=+
“When I spoke with the Labour Supervision Committee they said to me, “Daw Su Su Nway, this is a democracy. Whether or not the employer is able to pay the wages that workers are demanding, there’s nothing we can do. The employer has said that he would suffer a loss. But the workers are saying that their wages are low. So, from a position between the two sides, we’ll coordinate for them. But whether or not the employer can pay, we can’t apply pressure. That’s democracy.” +=+
“Therefore, I asked the workers how much they were demanding. They were demanding 250 [kyat per hour]. I called the workers together and told them that the employer had said the demand of 250 would make him suffer a loss. So, 250 wouldn’t be possible. “Wouldn’t 150 be alright?” I asked the workers. The workers therefore reduced their demand by 100 and agreed with me on 150. When the workers were in agreement, I went to speak with the Labour Supervision Committee—the government organisation—saying, “We can’t reduce the demand lower than 150. For us, 150 would be alright. So, if you can coordinate, please coordinate for us.” Then all the workers and the employer were called into the open area of the factory compound. When they were negotiating, the employer said he would only raise the wages by 50. He said he couldn’t at all raise them any more than that. The workers didn’t accept that. When the workers didn’t accept it, they yelled, “Heeeyyy!” Since the workers became all agitated I got really worried that they’d be arrested, just as I’d been arrested. With the workers all agitated, I was really worried. So, I tried hard to keep the workers in order saying, “We’ll work hard to get [the demands].” +=+
Arbitrating a Myanmar Labor Strike
On efforts to settle the strike, Su Su Nway told Stephen Campbell, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, “After the workers calmed down, I called the ILO [International Labour Organisation] in order to ameliorate the situation...“Please come to the ILO office,” they said. But I didn’t go. I didn’t go because I was really worried that these workers were going to be arrested. Therefore, I stayed together with the workers. I stayed there until it got dark. The most senior person in the Hlaing Thar Yar Labour Committee was discussing with the employer. They wouldn’t come out until I went home. I waited for the chairperson of the Labour Supervision Committee to leave. Then I went to his car and asked him, “How are you going to decide? What are you going to do?” He replied, “We haven’t yet made a decision. We’ll make a decision tomorrow.” So I asked again, “What time are you going to decide?” “Ten thirty,” he said. So I said, “Okay, I’ll be there at ten.” The next day I went there by ten o’clock. [Source: Stephen Campbell, New Mandala, February 11, 2013 +=+]
“At that time, they said they’d raise the wages by 50 [kyat per hour]. The employer said to me, “Daw Su Su Nway. I’m going to suffer a loss. Therefore, Daw Su Su Nway, please control the workers for me.” I replied, “They demanded 250. Now on our side we’ve gone down to 150. So, say something that will make this alright.” I asked the workers again, “If you reduce a little, will it be okay?” The workers went down to 120. From our side we reduced a lot. But from their side, they wouldn’t concede. “When the employer wouldn’t concede, I came to see that it was the employer and the government’s labour body that had brought about this conflict and caused it to drag on for such a long time. +=+
“I then went to the ILO and I spoke with ILO official Steve Marshal... The ILO immediately scheduled a meeting with the Deputy Labour Minister. I got the Labour Administration Department’s Director U Chit Shein to come resolve the issue. Within those three days, U Chit Shein came to resolve the matter. When he came to resolve the issue—during this strike, this employer-employee conflict, the employer paid the police and security guards 3,000 kyat per day to stay there. These police who were getting 3,000 kyat per day didn’t want the strike to end immediately. So, they said to the young workers, “The person who is coming today isn’t U Chit Shein.” The workers didn’t know U Chit Shein. So when the Director arrived and got out of the car someone said, “That’s not U Chit Shein.” U Chit Shein said to them, “Today I’ll resolve this for you. Do you agree?” The young people said “That’s not U Chit Shein. We don’t agree!” And all together they yelled “We don’t agree!” U Chit Shein was really angry. He didn’t resolve anything and just left. +=+
“What I want to say is that, when these employer-employee conflicts occur, it’s not just politicians who say things to inflame these conflicts, rather than resolving them peacefully and bringing them to a quick conclusion. It’s also government bodies. That’s what I’ve seen. So, if it’s going to be like that, then so be it. +=+
Forming a Labor Union in Myanmar
On setting up a labor union, Su Su Nway told Stephen Campbell, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, When I came to see that the conflict could “drag on for such a long time. I got the workers together and said to them, “When democracy finally arrives, when we’ve gone along their route, won’t you be more successful if you form an organisation? If you make demands individually, you won’t succeed. Therefore, I’d like you to form a union.” [Source: Stephen Campbell, New Mandala, February 11, 2013 +=+]
“When I got back all the workers were divided. Someone had said to the workers regarding the leaders whom I’d appointed, “Ma Su Su Nway took these young people to the ILO and the ILO gave them over 3,000,000 kyat and bought them phones. They didn’t pay you, but they paid the leaders.” And like that they fought and broke up. At that time these young women workers who had come from rural areas didn’t understand and all of them had split up. Because of threats among the young worker leaders, they were all divided when I arrived. They came up to me saying “Sister, sister, it was like this.” I went to the open area where the workers were and explained to them so as to get them in order. +=+
“I took by the hand these young people who had misunderstood. I said, “I personally went and submitted a complaint to the ILO about forced labour and I personally made a demand and was successful. The ILO is the International Labour Organisation and their staff get salaries. They’ve come to our country in order to end forced labour. So, other countries have come to give assistance to our country. But when I did that work I didn’t get even 500 kyat. The only things I’ve received from the ILO are pens, booklets and ILO pamphlets. Therefore, since people like me who have been involved with the ILO and have helped so much about child soldiers or forced labour haven’t even gotten 500 kyat, will the people who eat rice [i.e. thinking humans] please consider whether these striking workers would have been paid 3,000,000 kyat.” When I said that and the young people came to understand, they came up and said “Sister, sister.” +=+
“I therefore organised the young people. We set a date of 2 March. We got as many of the young people as we could. We got 26 people. With those 26 people we gathered in a home and formed the outline of a union. According to the regulations we needed 30 workers. So, on 4 March we confirmed the union and I fed biriyani to the young people using my own money, so that they’d want to come. We therefore got the requirement [of at least 30 workers]. On 8 March we applied to the government. On 12 March, due to the promulgation of the procedural labour law, the Tai Yi factory union registration was granted early. +=+
“Starting with that, one union after another was formed according to their section. When that happened, what I saw was: there a union, here a union, there a union, here a union; a union on the workers’ side; a union on the employer’s side; a union on the authorities’ side. Among the workers there were different people vying to form unions. That’s what I saw. One union would have one success. But nobody’s thinking about how to go forward in order for the union to come to life. +=+
“In one factory, on the employer’s side there’s a union and on the worker’s side there’s a union formed by someone doing labour activities. So the union is split in two. The government says, “Okay, we’ll register your union.” And the government tells the international community, “Here are the Labour Ministry and all these unions being formed. Every three days a union is formed.” But below that statement, I haven’t seen the government do anything to prevent these disparities between the employer and the workers’ union. Therefore, for these union leaders, okay, you’ve formed a union. It’s been legally registered. But with that registration, I haven’t seen the government do anything to help that union leader or to provide the right to act and make demands…
Strikes in Thar Yar Industrial Zone
Beginning with the strike at the Tai Yi footwear factory in February 2012 a wave of strikes spread across factories in Myanmar. Mostly this was in the Hlaing Thar Yar Industrial Zone outside Yangon. On these strikes Su Su Nway told Stephen Campbell, a PhD student at the University of Toronto, “Regarding the reasons for this strike wave, from my perspective, the young workers who worked in the factories and workplaces suffered injuries at their workplaces. They didn’t have permission to go to the hospital to treat these injuries. The authorities had directed the doctors to examine the workers a little and then make them go back to work. The workers were displeased about this. Another thing is that their daily wages and overtime wages are low. So they made demands about this. When they made these demands the employer wouldn’t comply. Also, the workers didn’t get compensation for severed arms, severed legs or other injuries. Furthermore, fired workers must get compensation for three months of work. But they didn’t get this. So the workers demonstrated, they went on strike and they made demands about the losses they were suffering at their workplaces and to claim their rights. And the strike wave reverberated among other factories where workers were enduring loses. And like that the strike wave spread. [Source: Stephen Campbell, New Mandala, February 11, 2013 +=+]
Illegal Labor Migration from Myanmar
Many Burmese cross the border to work at industrial towns with multi-storied buildings and factories in China the same way Mexican come to work in the U.S. Burmese also cross the borders into India and Bangladesh to work.
In May 2012, Associated Press reported: “Thailand hosts around 2.5 million impoverished Burmese who have fled here to work low-skilled jobs as domestic servants or in manual labor industries like fisheries and the garment sector. Andy Hall, a migrant expert and researcher at the Institute for Population and Social Research at Thailand's Mahidol University, said the Myanmar migrants — up to a million of them lacking work permits — make up between 5 and 10 percent of the Thai work force, contributing as much as 7 percent of the nation's GDP. Many are exploited and paid reduced wages. Some have been trafficked; some have had their passports confiscated by employers. [Source: AP, May 31, 2012 *=*]
“Hall said they were nevertheless "the lifeblood of a lot of the Myanmar economy, sending home money to support families who don't have enough money to eat...They have no voice, they can never speak up or stand up. One migrant, a 26-year-old woman named Khin Than Nu, works at a Thai canning factory and dreams of her home in Myanmar's Mon state. "We left our parents in Burma, and all my brothers and sisters work here to support our parents," she said. " *=*
Exploited Burmese Shrimp Factory Workers in Thailand
Reporting from Samut Sakhon, Thailand, Pravit Rojanaphruk wrote in The Nation, “Labour exploitation, human trafficking and bondage of migrant workers from Burma continues in Samut Sakhon's shrimp-processing factories and onboard trawlers despite the passing of an anti-human-trafficking law in 2008, said Sompong Srakaew, founder and director of Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation (LPN). Exactly how many workers are trapped in bondage inside shrimp factories or lured and forced to work on deep-sea fishing trawlers is unknown. But, Sompong, who worked in this area for eight years, estimates about 30 per cent of the 400,000-plus Burmese workers in the province are exploited beyond Thai laws. [Source: Pravit Rojanaphruk, The Nation, February 28, 2012]
Bosses confiscate work permits, temporary passports and identity cards so that Burmese in fish-processing factories cannot seek employment elsewhere. Worse still, some are held in small factories and not allowed to leave the compound and forced to work like slaves.Young migrant men are also being trafficked into forced labour aboard deep-sea fishing boats via false documentation with the aid of corrupt Thai officials and police. "It's hard to pin down the figures by making an estimate," Sompong said. "But they are definitely there and they end up as virtually slave labour." Sompong said he took a group of Chulalongkorn University graduates to some factories in Samut Sakhon two weeks ago. But they only saw high walls and fences that looked like prisons from the outside. And no one could enter.
Efforts to Help Exploited Burmese Shrimp Factory Workers in Thailand
Pravit Rojanaphruk wrote in The Nation, “In November 2009, two employers at Anoma shrimp-processing factory were charged with forcing 73 foreign workers including 25 children to be "slaves", working from 2am until 8pm every day. This was among other abuses that according to the local police inquiry report included "keeping them in slave-like conditions… confining of people [including] women and children by means of threat or use of force to achieve their consent to allow him/herself or others to exploit them…" While the two employers were eventually sentenced to eight and five years, they are now out on bail fighting their conviction in the Appeal Court while many workers cannot afford to spend time to follow the case. [Source: Pravit Rojanaphruk, The Nation, February 28, 2012]
Sompong believes the Thai government isn't doing enough to warn Thai and migrant workers of the danger of these industries. He said even signs warning job-seekers at busy transport hubs like Mor Chit Bus Terminal put up by Mirror Foundation have been removed. "Thais want to tell ourselves that no human trafficking exists. If they admit it, they fear it will be bad for tourism." Sompong said the government should run a vigorous and visible campaign to warn job-seekers, both Thai and foreign, about the danger of human trafficking and forced labour at transport hubs such as bus and train terminals and also petrol stations. He said unlike the very visible anti-drug billboards, no such campaign has been run in Thailand to date.
Once people are inside factories or on-board ships, very little can be done to help them. Those on boats face a life-threatening work environment, while those detained inside prison-like factories cannot seek help. "Some are detained and cannot come out to call for help." But Sompong said formal recognition of job-brokers by the government may help reduce the number of people duped into virtual bondage, as only half of the estimated 100 to 200 job-brokers were reliable and trustworthy.
Burma also needed to do more, he said. For the eight years he has been trying to protect migrant workers from Burma, the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok had never sent anyone to speak to him or ask for his advice or collaborate on any project. "They have never sent anyone here," he said.
Burmese Workers in Factories on the Thail-Myanmar Border
Reporting from Mae Sot, a remote town on Thailand's border with Myanmar, Anthony Faiola wrote in the Washington Post, “Over the past eight years, textile and shoe factories in the Thai capital of Bangkok boomed, churning out Levi's jeans and Reebok sneakers to meet record demand in the United States and Europe. When orders bested their capacity to fill them, Bangkok factories subcontracted work to new factories that sprouted up on Thailand's long and porous western border,” where “thousands of Burmese risked their lives in a quest for jobs in Thailand. [Source: Anthony Faiola, Washington Post, March 05, 2009 <<]
“Lamin, a 25-year-old orphan living with relatives who could no longer support her, spirited herself across the Mae Sot river in an inner tube in late 2006. She landed work easily in a Thai factory making linings for pants with 800 other women. Working from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, she earned $100 a month. Thirty percent went back to her employer to cover room and board. She still managed to send money home and pocket almost $20 to $30 a month. "Yes, it was tough" Lamin said, "but it was still better than Burma." <<
“When the global economy went code red, Thailand's exports collapsed. The factory where Lamin worked began losing contracts. In mid-February, her employer joined dozens of others shutting down in the region and adding to a swelling refugee crisis. All 800 Burmese workers at Lamin's job site were fired. <<
“Tucking away her $350 life savings, she tried to join many of her jobless co-workers crossing back into Burma. On the way, she was shaken down by Thai police who are conducting crackdowns in the area as public opinion shifts against foreign workers in hard times. Now penniless, she is living in a halfway house in a dusty corner of town, sleeping on a concrete floor and hoping to persuade her old employer to fund her return home. "I don't want to go back to Burma. It is a horror, there is only poverty, no jobs," she said, eyes downcast as she spoke through a translator. "They only wanted us in Thailand when they needed us. Now, they just want us gone."” <<
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014