Rangoon Labor Strike Continues on Small Scale Amid Rising Tension

By Yen Saning 25 February 2015

RANGOON — All garment factories that have been at the center of a long-running strike have reopened, but about 100 laborers continued to protest on Wednesday to demand a pay rise, a labor activist said.

Labor union leaders called on factory owners, the government and laborers to come to the negotiating table to resolve the stand-off, which has become increasingly tense. The Labor Ministry issued a statement on Tuesday warning of legal actions against protestors, while several laborers were arrested in recent days.

Naing Lin Aung, coordinator for Myanmar Trade Unions Federation (MTUF) at Rangoon’s Shwepyithar Industrial Zone, said some 100 workers were continuing their protests on Wednesday, although their numbers had shrunk in recent days. “Among the protesting workers, some are still protesting, some have gone back to work, some have gone home, and some are somewhere else,” he said.

On Feb. 2, about 2,000 employees of the E-Land Myanmar, COSTEC and Ford Glory garment factories stopped work to demand a raise in monthly wages to 80,000 kyats [US$78], up from 50,000 kyats. The factories, which are owned by Chinese and South Korean firms, according to the workers, rejected the demands and offered 62,000 kyats.

Aung Lin, chairman of MTUF, on Wednesday called on laborers, employers and government to resolve the dispute, but said the demonstrators had taken to the streets too soon as the Labor Dispute Tribunal was still reviewing the dispute.

A protestor employed at E-Land Myanmar, who asked not to be named, said the remaining workers wanted to continue to strike and were operating independently from the labor unions. “Our salary is low. We, with our own will, started to protest. We did the camp ourselves,” he said, adding that E-Land Myanmar workers had only received small pay rises after organizing several strikes in recent years.

Four rounds of negotiations between government, employer and employee representatives failed to produce an agreement in recent weeks and laborers declined to attend a planned meeting this week after the arrest of one protest leader last week.

Naing Lin Aung, the MTUF coordinator, said he heard protest organizer Myo Min Min and a demonstrator named Naing Htay Lwin had been apprehended on Feb. 21, while Naing Zaw, a worker from COSTEC, was arrested at his home in Hlaing Thar Yar Township on Tuesday.

The Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security said in a statement published in state media on Monday that it would continue to try and broker an agreement between employers and laborers, but warned authorities would take legal action against those who continue to protests and “harm peace and rule of law,” or incite unrest.

A Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association statement published in state media said the workers were disrupting factory operations and claimed the laborers’ actions were “unlawful.” It said that if the factories were forced to shut down because of a protracted strike, employers would have no responsibility to compensate workers for loss of income.

When Irrawaddy reporters visited the protest on Tuesday the atmosphere was tense and protestors said they were weary of journalists as Special Branch police had pretended to be members of the media to query them.

Men in plain clothes appeared to be monitoring protestors and journalists covering the event. Shortly after a foreign Irrawaddy photographer arrived, Immigration Department officials appeared and demanded to see his visa.

A middle-aged Burmese man identifying himself as Ni Ni took photos of reporters on Tuesday and claimed to be a journalist with Kamayut Media. The office of the local news outlet later told The Irrawaddy that they employed no reporter by that name.