Why Have Thousands of Myanmar’s Workers Taken to the Streets This Year?

By The Irrawadddy 2 November 2019

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll find out the reasons behind frequent labor strikes and discuss industrial dispute settlement mechanisms in Myanmar. Chairman of the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar and member of the Central Executive Committee of the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM) Daw Khaing Zar Aung and General Secretary of the Myanmar Industry Craft and Service-Trade Unions Federation (MICS) U Thet Hnin Aung join me to discuss this. I’m Ye Ni, editor of The Irrawaddy Burmese edition.

Workers have staged frequent strikes recently. At the monthly meeting between businessmen and Vice President U Myint Swe, Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) President U Zaw Min Win, representing employers, said the recent meeting of Mekong countries recognized Myanmar’s potential to attract foreign investment but pointed out industrial disputes resulting from weaknesses in labor laws. He stressed the need to resolve industrial disputes.

Not so long after he said so, workers from five garment factories gathered in front of the Yangon regional government’s office and expressed their grievances. As far as I know, there are conciliation bodies and arbitration bodies, so there is a labor dispute settlement mechanism in place. The Settlement of Labor Disputes Law has been enacted but workers are still often taking to the streets. What is the cause? Is there any weakness in the labor dispute settlement mechanisms?

Thet Hnin Aung: The MICS can raise labor issues at the monthly meeting with the Vice President. There are two things to consider in industrial disputes: the demands from employees and the demands from employers. Industrial disputes arise as a result of these.

There are two elements to the demands of employees: the first is concerned with their interests such as pay increases and wages. The second is concerned with their rights such as entitlement to leave. When a labor dispute arises, it is first discussed within the Workplace Coordinating Committee (WCC). If a dispute can’t be settled by a factory’s WCC, it shall be brought to the township conciliation body, the arbitration committee and then the arbitration council, according to the newly amended law. If the dispute concerns rights, relevant government offices have to handle it. These are the Labor Department, the Factories and General Labor Laws Inspection Department and the Social Security Board.

We have found that workers tend to gather in front of the Yangon regional government’s office whenever something happens. So, we have checked whether they are using our labor dispute settlement mechanism or if they have difficulties using the mechanism. The problem results from a lack of trust: employers and employees have little trust in the conciliation body, the arbitration committee and the arbitration council, which can be referred to as the third party. So, we asked the employees if going to the government’s office is the solution. We assume they go there because they think these mechanisms can’t function properly.

So, workers pursue two options: the first is the option outlined in the law and the second is to put pressure on the regional government. However, when the chief ministers do intervene, the dispute is still settled through the same mechanism, by holding meetings with employers and officials in the Ministry of Labor.

The Settlement of Labor Disputes Law has been enacted but rules are not yet adopted. There are some complications that hamper the implementation of the rules. The UMFCCI president stressed the need to handle labor dispute problems in order to attract foreign investment. We also want to ensure good industrial relations in our country in order to attract foreign investment. The most important thing we have to do to make this happen is to change our mindset. It is critically important that Labor Ministry officials, township conciliation bodies, arbitration committees and arbitration councils win the respect and trust of employers and employees.

We are very concerned about one thing: if workers wrongly think that they can achieve their rights only by staging protests, this will negatively affect the industrial relations in our country. To make a long story short, the Parliament should take steps as soon as possible to promulgate labor dispute settlement rules.

YN: Ma Khaing Zar Aung, as you brought around 2,000 employees to the streets in August, my question is why did you organize the protest that time?

Khaing Zar Aung: If there were a good labor dispute settlement system, we would not need to take to the streets. So, we want the [labor] laws improved. We, as the confederation, participated in the process to amend the laws. The Settlement of Labor Disputes Law was amended for the second time in June. Though not all our recommendations are included in the new version of the law, there are some improvements. We are not 100 percent satisfied with the new version, but as it has been enacted and there is a need to follow and enforce that law, we always keep an eye open to make sure the law is strictly enforced.

In a case in Kyauktan Township, two employees said they were unfairly dismissed and they wanted their jobs back. As this concerned labor interests, we wrote a letter to the Union Ministry of Labor saying that what the township conciliation body said didn’t comply with the Settlement of Labor Disputes Law. We pointed out that as this is the first case [of its kind], if it is neglected, it will become precedent and employees will not get compensation in future cases of dismissal. We also sent letters to the Yangon regional chief minister and the Yangon regional labor minister. We waited for more than one month but they didn’t reply. We are worried because this concerns more than those two employees and could have impacts on the whole country. The two were sacked because they formed labor unions and asked for labor rights. There are many similar cases.

If those cases are not settled properly through the existing labor dispute settlement mechanism…if employees are fired for forming labor unions and asserting their rights, this is a violation of the freedom of association. This is a violation of ILO standards and the country may face considerable international pressures for this. Our country is still a developing country, and at a time when we need a lot of international assistance and investment, the township conciliation committee made the wrong decision… The Ministry of Labor has never said whether [the decision] is right or wrong, but we have insisted that it is against the law. If it is not solved fairly, this will have a negative impact on our country. It is not just about labor interests, but it can also have an impact on the whole country. We asked that if the [Settlement of Labor Disputes] Law doesn’t include clear provisions concerning the case [of dismissal and compensation], the rules should include provisions about that.

YN: I have heard about the notion of “decent work,” which is said to be important to end industrial disputes. What requirements need to be fulfilled to ensure decent work?

THA: The representatives of the employers, the employees and the government have signed on to the Decent Work Country Program for Myanmar. It calls for ensuring decent pay for workers, amending labor laws in line with the norms of the ILO, ensuring workplace safety, and improving the skills of the workers through tripartite efforts. Decent work is not just for the employees; it is also beneficial to employers. But when we say “creating decent jobs,” many think it only concerns employees. This is not the case. In reality, it is a process that also yields obvious benefits for employers. So we have called for amending labor laws in accordance with international or ILO norms.

Our country was closed for decades and only recently have we been able to look outside. So we need to look at the global perspective to be able to catch up. Another thing is about pay: when we invite foreign investment, low-cost labor alone is not the only incentive. Ensuring appropriate wages is part of decent work. We are therefore implementing the decent work country program through tripartite efforts. In a nutshell, to solve the labor disputes peacefully through tripartite discussions is also part of the decent work program.

YN: Ma Khaing Zar Aung, what else would you like to add?

KZ: There is a need to form agencies that will monitor whether employees can really enjoy their rights. There are legal loopholes in our country. The decent work country program is being implemented in Myanmar and it includes amending labor laws in line with international norms. So the question is whether the workplace will improve after the labor laws are amended. But there is no still guarantee of that. We still need a mechanism that will monitor whether those laws are being strictly followed. If a party doesn’t abide by those laws, decent work can only be secured by forcing it to comply with regulations, either by negotiating or by taking action. So who will—and who can—monitor, negotiate and regulate?  Here, labor organizations play an important role.

There is a labor organization law in Myanmar. The law is not 100 percent in line with ILO norms but the law provides for the formation of labor organizations. What are the benefits of labor organizations? A labor organization can monitor whether employees really enjoy their rights: are they paid for overtime, do they get leave and is there harassment in the workplace? It can listen to the voices of employees. It should also be able to negotiate with employers if there are requirements at the workplace. Only then can decent workplaces be created.

What is happening now is the labor organizations are not recognized [by employers]. Workers are sacked if they press demands. We will see decent work happen if employers recognize the formation and existence of labor organizations in accordance with labor organization laws and if they cooperate with employees for the betterment of their factories. Employers, employees and the government are all responsible for realizing decent work.

The government also shares this responsibility because it is responsible for making good laws. There is a need to amend flawed laws through tripartite discussions. After the Parliament approves them, the responsibility falls on employers and employees to implement them. And decent work can be created through balanced cooperation between employers and employees. The labor dispute settlement mechanism will also contribute to this. If employers and employees do not get on well with each other, and disputes arise despite implementation of the law, we will still be able to guarantee decent work if this dispute settlement mechanism works properly, or the government regulates.