Myanmar Garment Workers Continue Strike, Demand Regional Minister Resign

By Salai Thant Zin 24 December 2019

PATHEIN, Ayeyarwady Region—Over 1,000 workers took to the streets in the Ayeyarwady Region capital of Pathein on Sunday to demand that regional Immigration and Human Resources Minister Dr. Soe Win and officials in the regional department of labor resign as a strike by workers at a local garment factory stretches into its third week.

Workers at the Hua Meng Garment Factory filed a complaint over pay issues and working conditions with the regional Dispute Settlement Arbitration Body, but it ruled against them and their employer has refused to meet most of their demands.

“The strike has been going on for 14 days. As the minister and labor department officials have been unable to solve this problem after so long, we are demanding that they resign,” said Ma Khine Nwe Oo Min, chairperson of the Hua Meng Garment Factory labor union.

In addition to over 500 Hua Meng workers participating in the strike, employees from three other garment factories joined the protest march on Sunday, calling for improved working conditions, improved arbitration mechanisms for industrial disputes and action against employers that violate labor laws.

“As the strike has been going on for so long, some are suffering from health problems. So, we want this problem to be solved as soon as possible. But we will continue the protest unless our demands are fulfilled,” said U Su Pone Chit, leader of the Hua Meng labor union.

Over 600 workers from the Hua Meng Factory started a sit-in protest on Dec. 9 in opposition to the ruling by the regional arbitration body. The regional authorities have tried to mediate but to no avail.

The regional government summoned a tripartite meeting between officials, the employer and employees on Dec. 20 but the employer failed to show up.

Dr. Soe Win was previously a lawmaker representing Pathein in the Ayeyarwady regional parliament and was appointed in September to lead the newly-minted Immigration and Human Resources Ministry of the regional government.

“I am trying to settle this fairly in line with the law. No negotiation is guaranteed to succeed. Workers are not satisfied because their demands are not completely fulfilled. I understand their feelings and I want to try harder to solve this dispute,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Workers of Hua Meng Factory complained to the township arbitration body in October that they are forced to work overtime, including on weekends and public holidays, and that their employer will deduct 10,000 kyats (US$6.70) from their pay if they refuse to work overtime on Sunday. They also reported that their employer has deducted pay for taking leave and that they have no access to clean drinking water in their workplace.

The employer agreed to fulfill their demands regarding basic rights such as that to drinking water but ignored key demands such as setting pay rates according to the skill levels of employees, providing transportation and giving bonuses to workers on Myanmar’s New Year. Workers then filed a complaint with the regional arbitration body.

The regional arbitration body ruled against the workers and, in response, over 200 workers staged a strike inside the factory on Dec. 9 according to Section 28 of the Settlement of Labor Dispute Law, which states that a party may carry out a lockout or a strike if they are dissatisfied with a decision of the arbitration body. The factory management closed the factory gate the following day, and workers staged a sit-in protest in front of the factory. The number of striking workers reached over 600 on Dec. 11. The factory employs around 1,000 workers, and thus around 60 percent of the workers are on strike.

After the government intervened, the employer conceded to grant 45 days of annual leave to all workers who are distance learners at universities, so that they can take exams, and to give a 5,000-kyat bonus to workers who do not take a single day of leave in a month. The employer has refused to grant any other benefits and the strike continues.

The strike at Hua Meng Factory is the first long-running strike in Ayeyarwady Region in 30 years, the most recent having been in 1988.

The regional government warned the striking workers in a letter on Dec. 15 that they are staging a protest in a public place without the approval of the local authorities, and that this is a violation of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law.

The warning letter asked the workers to disperse peacefully and warned of legal action if they fail to do so. Workers have, however, continued with the protest.

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.

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