Workers Rally for Labor Rights in Mandalay

By Zarni Mann 23 January 2017

MANDALAY — Workers at Panda Textiles in Mandalay’s Sintgaing Township led a march around the city on Sunday to voice complaints about their labor situation and push the Union government to protect their rights.

A resumed strike and renewed protests—which first started in 2013—were sparked by stalled negotiations between workers and owners at Panda Textiles.

Hundreds of textile workers traveled into the city center to join Sunday’s protest, filling the streets with their motorbikes and listening to speeches at Manawyaman grounds. The textile workers were joined in solidarity by workers from factories in the Mandalay industrial zone.

“Despite the involvement of the regional government, the factory has refused to sign an agreement with us,” said Ma Zar Chi Win, one of the protesters. “That shows no respect for the government or us, the workers, which is why we are protesting here.”

The two sides came close to signing a new labor contract in early January, but the factory ownership said it needed to take another look at planned incremental raises in workers’ salaries, overtime earnings, and annual leave.

Factory owners also refused to re-hire four labor leaders fired for organizing protests and further negotiations were canceled at the last minute.

“We’ve been protesting for about eight months, and our demands have not been met,” said Ma Zar Chi Win. “We plead for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Htin Kyaw, and every responsible authority from Naypyidaw to assist our cause.”

Disputes at the factory began in 2013 when the private textile company Panda took over operations from the Ministry of Industry. At that time, the laborers staged a series of protests and complained that they were abused during the transition of ownership.

In early 2015, two textile workers died and four labor leaders were fired during a protest in which 600 laborers camped in front of the factory.

A negotiation team formed by the Mandalay regional government to mediate between owners and workers assembled a list of 28 specific demands in November 2016 but a major sticking point was that Panda refused to re-hire the four fired labor leaders.

Protesters also said they were not satisfied with the regional government’s efforts and the negotiation team could not persuade the two sides to sign a deal.

“We feel that the regional government is not standing firmly on the side of the laborers. So now we want President U Htin Kyaw and the authorities in Naypyidaw to help us,” said Ko Thet Hnin Aung, another protesting worker.

“We also want to send a message that we will accept the consequences if our demands are not appropriate, or if we break the law,” said protester Ko Thet Hnin Aung. “But if the factory ownership breaks the law, the government must also discipline them.”