Protesting Textile Workers Seek Return of Govt Hand at Privatized Factory

By Zarni Mann 17 January 2014

MANDALAY — More than 100 factory workers staged a protest outside a textile factory in Paleik, Mandalay Division, on Friday, urging the Ministry of Industry to intervene in a dispute with their employer, a Chinese firm that runs manufacturing operations handed over by the government last year.

The textile factory in Paleik was formerly run by the Ministry of Industry (1), but was handed over to Panda Group of Companies in April 2013. The protesting laborers accuse their new employer of labor rights violations and complain that the company has been unclear about the future of the enterprise.

They also question the authenticity of a recent announcement, which came in the form of a letter purportedly issued by the Naypyidaw government, concerning compensatory pensions for workers laid off in an impending restructuring of the company.

“We have no rights on overtime pay, annual leave and other absences. The letter about compensatory pensions, which claimed it was from Naypyidaw, has no seal or signature and we accuse the ministry and the company of lacking transparency,” said Ko Kyaw, a protesting factory worker.

The protesting workers said a notification from Panda in December said the company would restructure the factory as well as the salary and benefits packages at its Paleik operations. Then early this month, a separate announcement indicated that compensatory pensions would be paid out to those among the 1,025 employees currently working at the Panda factory who were laid off as a result of the restructuring.

The laborers, who doubt the authenticity of the latter pronouncement, say their future is uncertain because Panda has not clearly indicated whether all of the laborers would be re-employed. The company has also failed to provide information on employees’ future salaries under a corporate restructuring.

“If the ministry really issued that announcement, our understanding is we will become the company’s employees. But the company said they will re-employ only skilled laborers and laborers who work hard without taking compassion leave or any other leaves,” said Ko Kyaw.

“If it is so, all 1,025 of the laborers won’t have a chance to be re-employed. Moreover, we still don’t know how much we would earn or what kind of benefits we would get,” he added.

According to the protesters, they are currently working at the same salary, an average of 80,000 kyats (US$80) per month, that they earned when the ministry ran the factory.

The workers said the company has broken agreements signed with the ministry prior to the factory handover regarding employment, salary and other benefits.

“When the factory was handed over to the company, the company had signed an agreement with the ministry that they would employ back all the workers and would give the same benefits as the government gave. But now, we do not receive overtime pay, leaves and benefits like repairs to housing,” said Hla Ko, a worker and a member of the factory’s labor association.

Although about 800 employees have been allowed to remain at company hostels, the laborers say Panda has forced them to foot the bill for any maintenance required at the company-owned housing.

The protesting workers are demanding greater transparency from the ministry, and are asking the government to mediate on issues of re-employment, salary, leave and overtime. They are also urging the company to jointly manage operations, along with the ministry, until 2015, as is the arrangement at other factories in Burma undergoing gradual privatization.

“Working under the ministry was not so good. Working under the company is worse. While we were with the ministry, they handled maintenance [at company-provided housing], but now with the company, they said they take responsibility only for the factory so it is not their concern. Actually, they formerly said, in 2013, that they would take care of everything, but that has not been the reality,” said Hla Ko.

“That’s why we are staging a protest, not to the company but to let the ministry know how their laborers have suffered since they turned over the factory to a Chinese company. If we are fired, we will have to move from the hostel as well. We want the ministry to solve these problems with transparency. All 1,025 of us just do not want to lose our jobs. And we want to work with full labor rights,” he added.

Tin Tin Shwe, the secretary of Panda’s Paleik factory, said the company was awaiting the arrival of senior management officials to resolve the labor impasse, adding that the ministry’s involvement was expected.

“We’ve submitted the case and the facts requested by the workers to the senior officers of the factory,” Tin Tin Shwe said. “Negotiation is the best way for a better result.”