Labor rights organizations in Myanmar have said that the military regime has repeatedly violated workers’ rights, including freedom of association for trade unions, since last year’s coup.
Daw Moe Sandar Myint, president of the Federation of General Workers Myanmar (FGWM), who is now working from an area of the country not under junta control, said that freedom of association for union workers has ceased since the military takeover.
“Genuine labor unions, whether regional or nationwide, are no longer able to organize,” she said.
Trade unions in factories are not able to carry out basic union functions such as protecting the rights of workers, because factory owners are collaborating with the regime-controlled Ministry of Labour and have threatened union officials and workers to prevent them participating in union activities or demanding their rights.
“On some occasions, they [factory owners and regime officials] even gave the personal information of union leaders to the security forces, so they could be interrogated or detained,” noted Daw Moe Sandar Myint.
In late August, the International Labour Organization (ILO) issued a brief report on Myanmar highlighting that the junta has declared 16 unregistered trade unions and civil society organizations (CSOs) to be operating as “illegal labor organizations”, and that they were now unable to function without fear of arrest.
Regime forces have raided trade union offices, harassed and threatened trade unionists and their families, and placed trade union leaders in detention and on a wanted list in retaliation for their participation in strikes and peaceful demonstrations demanding the restoration of democracy and civilian rule, said the ILO.
CSOs and trade unions not officially named on the junta’s blacklist are also facing the same treatment. A key tool used to crackdown on unions has been to issue arrest warrants for leaders of CSOs and unregistered unions on incitement charges under section 505(a) of the Penal Code.
On September 2, the junta’s Ministry of Labour issued a rapid rebuttal of the ILO report, saying that it “strongly objects to the ILO’s false statements”.
Daw Myo Myo Aye, leader of the Solidarity Trade Union of Myanmar (STUM), confirmed that they had heard that STUM is one of the 16 organizations that the regime now regards as unlawful associations.
“They have also verbally warned workers that they will get into trouble if they contact us,” she added.
The STUM leader was detained for six months after the coup, along with many other labor activists.
She said that there are now so-called ‘yellow unions’, or fake unions, that have been organized by factory owners and management so that they can convince companies and product buyers that the labor rights of their employees are being respected.
STUM and other organizations such as Action Labour Rights, the Coordination Committee of Trade Unions, the All Burma Federation of Trade Unions and Future Light Center continue to operate, but can only carry out a small range of their normal activities.
The other eleven organizations named by the junta as “illegal labor organizations” have fled to areas of the country outside regime control.
Workers who The Irrawaddy talked to said that when their rights are violated in factories, they are helpless as they risk arrest for contacting trade unions. The mechanism for dispute settlement has also ceased since the military takeover.
For now, all unions and CSOs can do is give informal advice to workers.
FGWM President Daw Moe Sandar Myint said that since unions are now only able to work remotely, they listen to the cases raised by the workers and then they give them advice on how to discuss and negotiate their rights with factory management and owners.
But she said that it is an unsatisfactory situation that doesn’t enable the unions to help workers in an effective manner.
“As long as the military dictatorship remains in power, it is not possible for labor unions to survive at all,” she said.
The ILO, in its Myanmar report, called for international support to counter this existential threat to civic space and freedom of association in the country. It added that it is time for the international community to demonstrate its solidarity with the organizations that are continuing the struggle to uphold workers’ rights in Myanmar.