RANGOON — Some 700 young Burmese women waited outside the gates of the Master Sport Shoe Factory in Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone in northern Rangoon in late August.
For two months they had been watching the same metal warehouse behind the locked gates of their former workplace. Some crouched on the dirt beneath bamboo and tarpaulin structures to shelter from monsoon rains or intermittent sun, others haggled over bunches of vegetables and herbs with opportunistic market sellers who saw the striking workers’ encampment as a fresh business opportunity.
Some still sat on the split vinyl benches of the parked, rusty Chinese buses that used to transport them from home to work, and back again. The women said they would strike as long as they need to.
Since President Thein Sein’s reformist government lifted a draconian, junta-era ban on labor unions two years ago, thousands of women in Burma’s predominantly female industrial workforce have begun to organize themselves; walking out of workplaces, striking, and demanding changes to their working conditions.
According to Ministry of Labor, 959 Basic Labor Organizations have been set up since unions were legalized, and the Department of Labor Records has recorded 447 garment worker strikes between 2012 and 2014. In a country with a patriarchal culture historically weighted in favor of men, the newly emerging labor movement seems to have placed socio-economic power in the hands of a growing number of female laborers.
According to Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, women account for 90 percent of the workforce in Burma’s garment industry, a sector that is expected to expand through foreign investment by international garment manufacturers in the coming years. The sector already makes up 44 percent of Rangoon’s total industrial output, according to Myanmar’s Department of Labor Records.
The Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association estimates that around 200,000 people work in garment factories. The typical garment worker is female and on average 24 years old, works six days a week and 13 hours per day, and earns about US$80 per month, according to a report by the Labour Rights Clinic.
Factory owners blame activists groups like the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society and Burma’s largest opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), for mobilizing strikes and organizing unions, and they worry that labor unrest will increase in frequency as the 2015 election approaches.
According to the Myanmar Investment Commission, foreign investment is five times greater every year since 2010 when Burma began to slowly open up. Garment factory owners from South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan in search of cheap labor are expected to increase investment in the country. But Western garment brands, such US retail brand GAP, which these manufacturers supply are sensitive to the labor conditions under which their brand clothes are produced. Enforcing and improving Burma’s new labor laws will be an important factor in attracting garment sector investment.
Learning to Fight for Labor Rights
On the evening of the 26th of June the owner of Master Sports Shoe Factory waited for his workers to leave for the night, locked up the heavy grey factory gates, and flew home to his native South Korea. He left without notice, without paying his workers or discussing severance pay. Immediately, the 717 female workers demanded what was owed. They staged strikes outside of the factory, the Korean Embassy, the Ministry of Labor in Naypyidaw, and appealed to the Myanmar government.
Two months on, near Junction Zawana in Rangoon, two young factory workers sit at a plain wooden desk in the corner of the concrete office of the 88 Generation, Burma’s most important activist group. Zar Zar Theint, 23, and Phyu Phyu Soe, 25, were the leaders of the strike against Master Sport; now they’ve turned to 88 Generation for lessons in trade and employment law.
Guarding over them is the hulking metal “88” sculpture that watches the entrance, and between them stands Daw Mar Mar Oo. She’s small between her two students; dressed in a conservative white blouse, with a Burma-shaped broach high by her neck and short black hair that reaches her ears. People are easy in her presence, and she has an open expression and hazel eyes—but something about her manner lets slip that she’s been pushing for labor condition changes for a very long time.
“The labor organizations are not very effective yet,” said Mar Mar Oo. “They have difficulties because the workers are not familiar with the law and their rights.”
Mar Mar Oo would like to see workers liaising with factory owners, lawyers and parliamentarians representing their constituencies to create a labor environment that’s fair and productive for all. Currently, the workers are disadvantaged because they don’t know the law, so they’re being exploited by the owners, according to Mar Mar Oo. “At the moment we can’t solve working conditions, just general problems as they occur,” she said.
The 88 Generation are trying to create a labor organization for the whole country, setting up many small labor organizations and linking them into a social network. They’ve connected with the International Labor Organization, and are offering labor rights training to female garment workers across Burma.
An hour north of Rangoon, in the dusty industrial zone of Shwe Pyi Thar, hidden down single track roads flanked by slimy ditches and the hulks of crippled eighteen wheelers, stands the garment factory of Myitta Yait. From the road it’s almost invisible, hidden behind fences covered with blooming flowers. Inside, a group of women sing a hypnotizing chorus while they work.
Myitta Yait, meaning “under loving kindness”, was founded by Myo Myo Aye in July 2014, as an active arm of the 2,000-strong National Unity Party, a small political party. “I want to train the girls to create a new market, not only to work like a worker but also to run their factory like an owner,” said Myo Myo Aye. When she speaks she stands square, holding unblinking eye contact. Her hair is tied up, and wire-framed glasses rest on her nose. She moves through the factory calmly, scooping her children onto her lap, and treating her workers like extended family.
The aim of Myitta Yait is to employ female garment workers who’ve been fired and are employed after participating in failed strikes, and help workers organize into effective labor unions. Currently, it employs 15 women from various parts of Burma who make garments for international export. Their production is expanding fast and plans are afoot to create sister factories around the city.
A peaceful atmosphere prevails and employees work in a clean building, with the windows open, the swaying branches of trees rustle on the window ledges as work rolls on, steady with their song. Everyone lives together at Myitta Yait in lodgings just next door. “I’m like everyone’s mother,” Myo Myo Aye jokes.
The staff of Myitta Yait were part of a female workers strike against a local wool factory. About 150 women went on strike for two months over a disagreement with the factory owner over daily productivity standards. But when a compromise couldn’t be met at the wool factory, the women were fired, and many went back to their homes in the countryside, some found employment at Myitta Yait.
Myo Myo Aye said she has organized around 30 strikes, and was arrested once. She’s even organized a demonstration in front of the Ministry of Labor in an attempt to force a change to the labor laws. “I feel strong now that I have a union,” she said referring to Myitta Yait.
Under the previous military government, striking workers faced jail time and interrogation for speaking out against employers. As Burma’s labor laws are slowly brought in line with international standards, the situation is improving and the new labor movement is having success in demanding better pay and labor conditions. Yet, even with reforms, many women are still fired for striking, or prospective employers find out about their activities and avoid hiring them.
For Myo Myo Aye and Mar Mar Oo that means there is still a lot that needs to change; labor laws needs be further improved and the newly acquired labor standards need to be enforced. “Employees have no protection from negative consequences of striking,” Myo Myo Aye said. “And if owners don’t follow through with promises, the law isn’t yet adept enough to support the workers.”
In order for a union to be legal, at least 10 percent of all workers in a factory must vote in support of it. After a vote is held on the creation of a union in a factory, the names of those who voted in favor of it are often noted down by the management. It’s then common for a factory owner to fire those who initiated the unionization in order to set an example and deter others, according to labor rights activists.
Factory owners have also taken steps to set up their own labor organizations, sharing information, and informing each other on employees they may see as problematic. The names of workers involved in labor organization are registered with the government and circulated through the factory managers’ organizations; these women are far less likely to find work in the future, labor rights activist said. Industry owners avoid hiring unionists and will try to force them out of the workplace.
“The country doesn’t operate within the law because of corruption. Local businessmen take bribes, and are very untrustworthy,” adds Mar Mar Oo.
Penalties for owners and workers are unbalanced too. “If the owner does something illegal, the fine is 500,000 kyat (US$500),” said Myo Myo Aye, “whereas if a worker does something illegal, the fine is 30 percent of their annual wage.” She wants legal reform of laws to set heavier punishments for factory owners, such as fines that are a percentage of their investment or prison terms in case of serious violations.
Outside the Master Sport Shoe Factory a crowd was gathering to hear the announcement of a Rangoon Division Labor Tribunal order about their labor dispute. The striking workers climbed from their buses and appeared from under their plastic shelters. Umbrellas went up, to protect from the sun, and they formed a giant huddle in the street.
The crowd is silent as the terms are read, it’s good news: The factory owner must pay the workers owed wages for June, severance pay, and compensation amounting to one month’s salary for every three months employed at the factory. The owner will be contacted three times, but if he fails to comply payment will be delivered through seizure and liquidation of his assets.
The bait is set. Burma’s desire for economic and industrial progress will certainly tempt its government to appease foreign investors by reforming its labor practices. This developing framework of labor laws will lead female workers and their new labor unions into the forefront of industrial decision-making. It will hand them greater control of their futures and improve the socio-economic conditions of tens of thousands women and their families across Burma.