Myanmar workers embrace new power to strike

Silenced for decades under military rule, Myanmar's workers are now daring to speak out to demand better pay and conditions after a new law gave them the right to strike.

Workers in the country formerly known as Burma are already testing their new-found power with a string of walkouts, emboldened by legislation that is considered among the most progressive in the region.

Hundreds of employees from three garment factories at Yangon's Hlaing Thar Yar Industrial Zone went on strike last week demanding improved working conditions, picketing outside the plants.

Clapping and chanting, they showed none of the fear that would have accompanied such open defiance in the past, when businesses held all the cards in a system defined by cronyism and intolerance of opposition.

"If they want to sack us, they will have to fire all 800 workers" at her factory, said one 26-year-old employee who told AFP she was not afraid of losing her job, although she was reluctant to give her name.

"If they don't increase the money, we will continue protesting," she added, saying she was paid around $60 a month.

The new legislation, approved by the country's reformist President Thein Sein to replace the repressive 1962 Trade Unions Act, was prepared with the help of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

It gives workers the right to strike when employers have been given advance notice, and to form unions with a minimum of 30 members.

The new rules represent a challenge to both workers and employers in a country where dissent was routinely crushed by a military regime for nearly half a century until a new quasi-civilian government took power last year.

"It's the very early days of a new industrial environment. People are coming to grips with it, understanding new rights and responsibilities," said Steve Marshall, the ILO's liaison officer in Myanmar.

He said people may become aware that they now have the right to strike but have little understanding of how to negotiate with employers, who are also adjusting to the new rules.

"We will likely see some industrial disruption and that is part of the learning process," he said.

A foreign diplomat told AFP the new legislation was considered as possibly "the best such law in Asia".

But he added: "The question is how to implement it in the current state of Myanmar society, which is not quite ready yet."

Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world and despite hopes of an economic revival as it opens up to foreign investment, job opportunities are still scarce and people face rising consumer prices.

The protester at Hlaing Thar Yar said workers wanted a cost of living allowance of 30,000 kyats (about $37) a month, which would bring her total monthly salary to around $100, including overtime.

Her employer had agreed to a $12 allowance, but "we are not satisfied with that", she said.

The firm said in a statement that workers who had not agreed to its offer by May 18 would be considered to have "resigned by their own will" -- a deadline ignored by the strikers.

It is just one in a number of recent cases of labour unrest at factories in Myanmar, whose low-cost workforce is a major attraction for foreign manufacturers hoping to set up operations there.

Earlier this month around 300 workers at a wig factory in the same industrial zone went on strike, demanding that their basic salaries be raised from around $12 a month to roughly $38.

"We have faced this problem for a long time but we couldn't stand it any longer," said 23-year-old Thingyan Moe. The South Korean employer granted all of the staff requests.

"Many protests are occurring in factories at industrial zones these days," said a lawyer acting for the garment workers, Htay, who goes by one name.

The reforms have not yet filtered through to employers or rank-and-file labour ministry bureaucrats, he added, so that "workers have no other option than to protest to get what they want".

"If these issues are not solved, it might cause instability. It might become the beginning of a labour uprising. We can't guess how far it will go."

But most recent disputes have been small in scale, with workers opting to walk out in the early stage of negotiations and agreeing a resolution within days.

Ye Naing Win, of the Committee for Establishing Independent Labour Unions, a local activist group, said there had been more than 20 strikes this year and more were expected.

"The protests are occurring because the basic salary they get is so poor and their lives get harder," he said. "These factories are like prisons."

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