Myanmar Workers and Farmers Reject Parties, Push New Voices for 2020 Election

By The Irrawaddy 25 July 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss why labor and farmer representatives have decided to contest the coming election as independent candidates and what difficulties they are facing under COVID-19 restrictions. Lawyer U Htay, who is the legal advisor to the Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar (CTUM) and will run in the election representing workers, has joined me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

I heard that 11 representatives of CTUM will run in townships with large populations of factory workers and farmers such as Hlaing Tharyar, Kawhmu and Htantabin townships [in Yangon]. How much have you prepared? What are your expectations and what are the constraints imposed by COVID-19 restrictions?

U Htay: There are three federations—the CTUM, the MICS [Myanmar Industries Craft and Services Trade Union Federation] and the AFFM [Agriculture and Farmer Federation of Myanmar]—that are officially registered with the Ministry of Labor and have representatives in national-level committees and tripartite groups. Through negotiations with trade and farmer unions, and with civil society organizations engaged in protection and promotion of laborers and farmers, we decided to field independent candidates to represent laborers and farmers.

As everyone knows, laborers and farmers make up over 70 percent of the country’s population. We also voted for [the National League for Democracy (NLD)] to secure its landslide victory in the 1990 election. People cast ballots, not because they were solicited to do so, but because they wanted to see changes. But unfortunately, changes did not happen. In 2015, we voted again for the NLD and secured its landslide victory, in the hope that we will see some changes. But changes did not happen as we expected.

We voted for the party because we respect the labor policies enshrined in its election manifesto. The minimum wage was set at 3,600 kyats [per day] (US$2.61) on August 28, 2015. According to the Minimum Wage Law, a new rate must be set every two years and should have been set in 2017. But the NLD government failed to make this happen. The new rate was set at 4,800 kyats (US$3.48) on May 14, 2018, 255 days after it should have been set. This means workers did not receive 1,200 kyats per day for a total of 255 days. According to Article 5 (h) of the Minimum Wage Law, the new rate must be set in at least every two years, and but now it hasn’t been set since May 2018. The new rate is already two months behind.

Basic salary is important for laborers to support their families while there is no overtime and no bonuses or other allowances during the COVID-19 crisis. Laborers are losing their labor rights as the current government—that we voted for—has failed to follow the laws. This is the reason we have decided to contest the election: because the government we voted for ignored our rights.

There are three kinds of labor issues. The first is about low pay and demand for other allowances. The second is concerned with their rights enshrined in existing laws. Laborers complain that they do not have the rights enshrined in the laws, and as far as I’m concerned, they have never made unreasonable demands beyond existing laws. The third is about redundancy and termination. COVID-19 has worsened these problems. Some factories have resumed operations despite the fact that they did not meet the COVID-19 health regulations. No action was taken against such factories though trade unions have filed complaints against them. Factory owners sack workers, reduce their workforce and terminate contracts under the excuse of COVID-19, leaving workers jobless. Workers are facing hardship. Under such circumstances, we had to decide what to do.

YN: So one of the reasons you activists decided to run as independent candidates in the coming election is because the NLD party, which we voted for with high expectations in 2015, failed to realize the interests of laborers and farmers?

UH: Yes, it is.

YN: What are the difficulties imposed by the election laws for independent candidates in soliciting public support on the ground?

UH: For political parties, once they are registered, it is easy for the people to know their logos and policies. But for independent candidates, we haven’t even submitted candidacy applications to the Union Election Commission (UEC). The applications are to be submitted between July 20 and August 7. Also, we can only come to meet constituents during the campaign period. So the election law is not fair for independent candidates regarding campaigning.

As everyone knows, the UEC made an announcement on July 2 about the rights to campaign [allowing Union-level officials to campaign in the coming election]. Then, the NLD made an announcement that its party chairperson [State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] and vice-chairman [President U Win Myint] will contest the election [and thus have the right to campaign], with reference to the UEC announcement. So the ruling party has an advantage even during the COVID-19 crisis.

Again, as the ruling party, it has been in contact with the people and media since it came into office. It is also taking the lead role in fighting COVID-19, so it has been able to reach everyone. Meanwhile, other political parties do not have that chance to secure public support, so there is a gap between the ruling party and other political parties, and the gap is larger for independent candidates. We don’t even have designed logos. We are restricted by election law from doing so at this point in time. Only once the UEC sets the campaign period will we be allowed to meet voters. It is not fair as independent candidates only have a limited time to meet voters. There is also a gap between the ruling party and other political parties.

We are also handicapped by COVID-19 restrictions. We held a press conference at Sky Hotel in line with safety guidelines on July 6. Journalists came and there were around 60 to 70 people, including representatives of farmers and labors. Though we organized the press conference in line with safety guidelines, the relevant ministry has asked us not to use hotels in future press conferences. So it is difficult for us to even hold press conferences and meetings. Though we are candidates, we have not submitted candidacy applications. Only after we submit applications can we talk to relevant election commissions. But political parties can talk to relevant election commissions as they are already registered.

Most factory workers are internal migrants and they are tenants who live in back-to-backs, hostels and squats. Usually, they do not have household registration certificates, and most of them do not have citizenship ID cards. They can’t afford to pay grease money to get citizenship ID cards. They were not included on voter lists in 2015 and before, and most of them are still excluded from the list now. So we will have to first try to get them enfranchised. We raised the issue last year on May Day and said that workers are losing not only their labor rights but also citizen rights. We called for suffrage for them.

YN: Factory workers are the most vulnerable in the COVID-19 crisis. Many factories were forced to close and many workers were made redundant. The government provided some food and cash to cushion the impacts. What is your view on the government’s actions to ease the impacts of COVID-19 on workers?

UH: Roughly, there are two problems during the COVID-19 crisis: workers are struggling due to redundancy and unemployment, so the government provided basic food to those who are struggling to make ends meet. But factory workers do not get the assistance because they are classified as having regular income. They get no assistance from the government. They only get assistance from the EU and ActionAid, which provided assistance in collaboration with trade confederations and trade unions.

While many workers were axed due to COVID-19, many were denied their rights under labor laws such as to overtime payment, bonuses and so on. So workers initiated collective bargaining as per the law. Because of the government’s ban on public gatherings due to COVID-19, lawsuits were filed against workers under the Disaster Management Law or labor laws. The law allows collective bargaining, but there are still no rules about it. The factory workers pressed their demands in the same way they have since 2012. But this time, it violates the government’s ban on public gatherings and they are sued under existing laws. The existing mechanism can’t protect them. The workers pressed the demand in line with ILO conventions, the Labor Organization Law and the Labor Dispute Settlement Law. But the existing government mechanisms can’t protect them from being sued.

As everyone knows, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and representatives of employers and employees met on April 22. In response to the discussion of the representative of the employer, the government issued an instruction on April 24 banning mass protests, and employees were sued as a result of that instruction. The government fulfilled the request of the employers, though it failed to protect the employees.

Since around the end of January, we have told the authorities that some factory owners have deliberately fired trade union leaders on the pretext of COVID-19. But there was no response. We can accept if they are made redundant due to COVID-19. But most of those factories are still operating and they have hired daily wage earners in the place of the trade union leaders who they have dismissed. We raised this issue with the [Labor] Ministry officials on March 30. We accept the fact that factories may have to close due to COVID-19. But they have to abide by existing laws.

According to the Labor Organization Law, if a factory is to be closed, [the relevant ministry] must be informed 14 days prior, permission must be sought from the township conciliation body and relevant factory workers and trade unions must be informed. Those factories closed without giving notice. The current government does not stand by the law. There were many factories that operated against the instructions of relevant ministries. No actions were taken against them despite the fact that employees complained to relevant authorities. So actions were only taken against employees and not employers.

YN: How much are you confident about winning the coming election despite the problems you have mentioned?

UH: We decided to contest the election because we feel we can no longer rely on lawmakers of political parties. We cooperated with political parties previously on labor and farmer issues, and we have come to understand that their policies on workers and farmers are only intended to drum up public support so that they can win the election and form the government. It is not that they designed those policies based on their first-hand experiences.

Unlike them, we have first-hand experiences and we are also taking a part in discussing related laws and rules. This is the difference. So we feel like we have to do it ourselves, and we believe only we can represent the voices of farmers and workers either in government mechanisms or Parliament.

But at the same time, we have also analyzed the election results: only six independent candidates won in the 2010 general election and only five independent candidates won in 2015. So independent candidates have less chance of winning compared to those with political parties. But there is also a difference here: in previous elections, independent candidates ran based on their personal beliefs. But we are running as the representatives of trade unions to promote the interests of farmers and workers, so we believe we will win the support of the grassroots. We may only have a few seats in the Parliament. But we have the largest force outside Parliament. We many only have a few seats, but we will have a say in discussions, submitting and discussing motions and proposals, asking the government questions, discussing matters related to taxes and burden and having a say in Union-level committees.

We believe we will be able to achieve certain things if we can push inside the Parliament by using the rights of the citizens outside the Parliament. This is why we decided to run in the election. Farmers and workers are excluded from reform processes such as charter reform—we make up the majority of the country’s population, but we are excluded—and farmers and workers have never been represented in the country’s peace process. Farmers and workers must be allowed to participate. The right to participate is important in democracy. We intend to make a connection between inside and outside Parliament, and therefore decided to run in the election with the strong belief that we can do this.

Farmers and workers make up the majority of the country. Though there are many parties in the Parliament, we have the largest base of support from the people. We believe we will be able to make the government and ruling party hear the voices of farmers and workers to some extent, and we believe they will respect the voices we convey.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!

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